HAPPY BIRTHDAY


motheranddaughter“The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways.” – Unknown

Today would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday.  And, Friday marked one year since she passed away.  As I have shared in this blog before, her passing was an event that did not hold much significance to me at the time because I felt I had said goodbye to her many years before.  Despite that, this past year has left me with the need to do a lot of reflection to help me come to terms with my feelings about this complicated relationship in order to begin a healing process resulting in forgiveness and transcendence from decades of trying to love someone who was fundamentally incapable of experiencing or giving authentic love.

This is a journey I did not enter into willingly.  In fact, I had my mind all made up when I learned that her life was nearing its end that I was relieved and ready to move on to the next phase of my life – a life without having to look over my shoulder and wonder when the next onslaught would occur.  I welcomed the freedom that came from knowing that the hurt, the humiliation, the constant anxiety about when she would next strike out would finally come to an end.  When I got the word that she had died, I texted my best friend to let him know and he immediately called me in bewilderment, wondering if he should console me or plan to take me out for a celebratory toast.  He gently prodded, fascinated by this highly unusual circumstance of someone losing their parent and not immediately  kicking into the rituals of mourning, honoring, etc., and asked “How do you feel?”  Of course, he knew that the feelings would be complicated.  He implicitly knew that I would be struggling to find words to make sense of the emotions, even in my own mind.  At the time I was quite laissez faire about the whole situation, resolved that I was ready to start anew.  I had prayed for an escape from the grip she had on me and suddenly my wish was granted and now I had the time and space to react and redirect myself.

In the year since my mother’s passing, I have had a metamorphosis of sorts.  In my own way, I have undergone a process of grieving and realigning myself without the force of my mother’s mental illness driving an undercurrent in my life.  Despite the fact that I had terminated my relationship with her nearly 7 years before her death, I was still struggling on a daily basis, balancing my indignation and my guilt while continuing to fear her wrath, her scorn, her outbursts intended to try to regain a connection with me.  She patented the art of attempting to have bad behavior rewarded with attention.  It took great resolve and discipline to not take the bait.  As an adult child, I still yearned the love of my mother and wanted nothing more than to wake up from a seemingly bad dream and find myself in a fairy tale, basking in the glow of love showered upon me by my mommy.  I never lost the wish, the unwavering desire to curl up and be loved and nurtured in a way that I understood was a gift meant for other little girls, simply not me.

As I worked through the process – one that I intentionally pushed to the background to be a backdrop to everything else that was going on in my life – I began to see answers and understanding emerge around me like giant thought bubbles bursting over my head.  I knew when I began the journey of healing that I would never truly understand my mother.  I acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that her actions and behavior would never make sense to me.  I did not have all the puzzle pieces.  I was missing huge chunks of her history that informed who she became as an adult.  I did not understand the demons that she confronted as a young child and had no way of understanding the role they played in the destruction of her life.  I never had a clear sense of the roots of her mental illness.  All of that, however, was intellectual masturbation because none of it mattered in how I felt.  And, frankly, for the better part of my adult life, I spent my time trying to understand, trying to solve the equation.  How I felt was always secondary.  I knew I was a victim of her illness and I knew that our relationship was ultimately detrimental to both of us.  I woke up one day and realized with crystal clear certainty that we were better off without each other than with.  And I walked away.  As my therapist has explained to me so many times, I nearly erased myself from existence by abandoning the most primal and pivotal relationship in my life.  I annihilated myself by rejecting my mother.  And, at the same time, I gave myself life.

I have struggled over the past year to find my way with this.  Life has presented me with seemingly unending complications to derail my focus and challenge my own mental stability.  I have struggled with my own purpose, my intentions and my truth.  Losing my mother without ever closing all the loose ends left me with a complicated web of questions and emotions that I knew I had to tackle when I was ready and in my own unique style.  No one – absolutely no one – could help me make sense of it.  I was living an experience that not a single person I know has ever experienced.  I was alone on an island left to sort out a big giant tangle of ropes in hopes that, when untwisted, I would be able to toss them out to pull in my raft and return the land of others.  I had hoped that by whacking through this mess I would suddenly feel differently, look like everyone else and be able to return to life feeling more complete and more connected.

It’s been one year and two days.  367 days of quiet contemplation.  8,808 hours of attempting to locate a lost piece of myself in order to better fit into my world and begin to blend in with everyone else.

Guess what?

I failed.

On the bright side, I am beginning to forgive my mother.  I am finding ways to have compassion for her and understanding that hers was the road less traveled – and not in a good way.  No one would ever sign up for the cruise that she took in her 82 years. No one would willingly leave the earth with a scant few by their side, having more regrets than joy.  Four marriages, three children, four grandchildren and her passing was barely noticed.  I feel sad for her.  I grieve for a life that was lost to an illness left untreated and an unwillingness to relent and accept that perhaps the darkness that she lived with was not simply the way it was meant to be.  I take no comfort in my righteousness that she deserved what she ultimately received.  I wish, I truly wish, I could have made a difference for her.  I wish I could have saved her and brought her to my island.  I tried so many times to heal her with my love, thereby, hopefully, healing myself.  However, it was always short-lived.  She thrived on chaos and manipulation.  She needed to break things down and then attempt to put them back together in order to feel like a savior.  She needed to be a victim and find blame in everyone else.  She did not know what it meant to forgive.  She only knew how to hold a grudge and suffer as she exhausted limitless mental energy feeling anger and resentment, ironically usually targeted towards those she most frequently hurt.

For me, today, I am learning to get beyond all that and am starting to understand the impact of her life and her behavior on me.  I am not a victim of my mother.  I am a product of my life experience and it is my choice to continue down the pathway she led me or to take a detour and find my own lane.  She is not a compass for me – a fact that pains me greatly because I believe so deeply in the power of motherhood and the role we play in guiding our children to their own paths while standing by to guide them to another and another as they need us to.  Nonetheless, my mother is all around me.  She shows up in my life in the form of other people that create struggles for me – the narcissists that invariably make their way to me; the angry, damaged and pained individuals that sniff me out falsely seeing me as a safe harbor.  I am simply not that port and I am learning to accept that about myself.  My job is not to rescue anyone but to provide an atlas built from my own painful journey.  I am not a walking support group and I have come to accept and, in fact, insist, that I am not here to be pitied or protected or, quite frankly, understood by anyone because we can never truly understand the complexities that make each of us unique.  Instead, I am here to give love, receive love and hope to leave a legacy that includes inspiring and empowering others to live a more meaningful life.  And, for that, I thank my mother.  Without her, I am not sure that these lessons would have made their way to me.  I am not sure that I would have the courage to look at life the way I do.  I have no certainty that, without my mother, I would have broken down and been rebuilt in a way that provides me with my own brand of power.  I am not perfect and I struggle to make sense of things every day but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to tackle life and connect the dots in the way that I do. As with many things in my life, I would never go back and change history.  It all informed my place today.  The road could have been easier and my choices could have been better but it is all about the journey.

This morning I talked to my best friend again and shared with him a piece of my truth that has crystalized for me.  I have spent so much of my lifetime trying to adapt myself to fit into the world in a way that would enable people to understand me better.  I have twisted myself up so painfully trying to blend in and make sense in other people’s worlds.  However, today, my own gift to myself on my mother’s birthday, I committed to allowing myself to be me.  367 days after my mother left the earth I am finally becoming the person I am meant to be.  And, after 45 1/2 years of life, I know I am just getting started.

Happy Birthday Mom.  I wish you could have gotten to know me.

SHAMELESS


“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

My journey into the dark valley of vulnerability has been quite an interesting adventure.  I certainly did not book this trip completely without apprehension and, frankly, did it despite many deep reservations about how I would be able to tolerate the trip.  It has been a bit of a rough ride with some ups and downs but, I am beginning to see my way to a comfortable resting place where I can shed my cloak perhaps once and for all.  I have surprised myself in many ways including the recognition that much of my apprehension around allowing myself to be vulnerable was intellectual rather than emotional.  I have had a mental block masking an open heart.

All this searching I have been doing to both understand my capacity for experiencing vulnerability as well as to understand the roots of my blockages has had me winding down roads and turning corners allowing me to discover many more perspectives.  I feel like a young student soaking in as much information as my brain can tolerate.  I am constantly learning and this knowledge is bringing me power.  Last week, my new hero, Brene Brown, gave another TED talk, this time on the subject of shame.  This is a topic that interests me immensely because much of my life has been veiled by shame.  Shame has served as a huge obstacle in my life and, remarkably, I have not spent much time exploring it.  In her talk, Brene talked about the year following her breakthrough speech on vulnerability, which she readily admitted might have been the craziest thing she had ever done.  She, in her estimation, recklessly stood before 500 people and told them how afraid she was of vulnerability and, never for a second anticipated that millions more would be catalyzed by her words once the talk hit You Tube.  Her big a-ha from all this was that vulnerability is not a weakness.  In fact, she suggested that when you see vulnerability up close, it actually looks like courage. Pretty powerful stuff.

Last week I was sharing with a close friend my journey with this blog and my lack of perspective on how what I write impacts other people.  We all have our own lenses and sometimes it is really difficult to see the world through anyone else’s eyes – no matter how much they try to describe the picture they see.  He told me that he thinks what I am doing is brave and, not surprisingly, I did not see it that way.  I was extremely flattered by his comment but, in reality, I do not see courage when I feel the pain and struggle.  It feels hard and feels unpleasant.  It is the same way I have felt about vulnerability.  It is hard work to allow yourself to feel vulnerable – to expose yourself and be open to what might be coming your way.  However, to those around you, it is unbelievably courageous to watch as you open yourself up and allow yourself to feel and experience the world in a way that many choose to avoid because it is simply too risky and too painful.  The ability to take an emotional risk such as saying I love you when you are not certain if the sentiment will be returned is so brave.  The  confidence that comes from allowing yourself to be exposed with tremendous uncertainty of how you will be received is quite an accurate measurement of courage.  It is being truly honest and authentic and not fearing the consequences.  That is bold.  So, despite the fact that my perspective and humility refuse to allow me to see myself as courageous, I can appreciate where my friend was coming from and I acknowledge that this work is not easy.

When opening up the subject of shame in her most recent talk, Brene talked a bit more about vulnerability, crediting it as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.  For someone like me, that is pure gold.  I live for innovation, creativity and change – and I struggle terribly to try to achieve any of it.  I have spent so many years locked behind doors, preventing me from unleashing my creativity because I could not be honest with myself. I was always creating a false, altered story that allowed me to avoid exposing the ugly underbelly that I feared I would be rejected for.  Over the past few years as I began to embrace some of my truths and become more accepting of myself, the veil began to lift and creativity started to flow.  This blog is the absolute evidence of that.  What I realized when listening to her talk was the role that shame has played in my inability to be open, even with myself.  The reason for me being locked behind the big steel doors that I caged myself in was because I felt shame.  According to Brene, shame is the ultimate focus on self and is the corollary of guilt.  When we feel guilty about doing something wrong, we might say that we are sorry that we made a mistake.  When we feel shame, we are thinking “I am sorry that I am a mistake.”  We feel inadequate and worthless and have no ability for compassion or love for ourselves because we do not believe that we are deserving.  Brene calls shame “the swampland of the soul.”  Put on your galoshes, walk through and find your way around.

Thinking about shame this way has been revelatory for me.  I do not think I feel shameful any longer.  I cannot begin to explain how major of a statement that is for me to make.  To have moved past something is seemingly impossible in my mind. It often feels like I will be burdened with my baggage until I take my last breath, focusing my energies on strategies to manage through it rather than move past it.  Yet, I believe, without reservation, that shame is not part of my current story.  It has been a sad truth for most of my life where I struggled to feel accepted and not feeling safe enough to admit that I was damaged and came from a very damaging place.  That is not my story today.  If empathy is the antidote to shame, then empathy is what I feel most of the time.  I empathize with myself and others who have struggled with their demons, addictions, weaknesses.  I have compassion for myself and understand that I am not defined by what has happened in my life but what I have done with it.  I remember writing a blog post not that long ago where I acknowledged that I struggled with forgiving myself.  I am beginning to feel that, perhaps, for the first time, I am prepared to cut myself some slack.

Last night I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who tends to complain about everything around her.  She is a bit of a downer and I find it tiring to listen to her steady dialogue of discontent, finding ways to put a negative spin on even the most positive experiences.  My friend and I talked about tactics for shutting down that type of behavior as opposed to indulging it or engaging it.  Negativity can be contagious.  In fact, it is much more easily spread than positivity because it requires a lot of work to be positive.  As someone who has made more than her share of snarky, cynical remarks about people and life, in general, I recognize how easily the words slip from my mouth.  I acknowledge how often I was perpetuating darkness rather than shining light to lift people up.  In fact, I also know how cynical I was of people who spent their time trying to bring lightness into other’s lives.  They were being brave and open and honest while I was hiding behind darkness to prevent myself from being seen and my shame being on display.  During the discussion with my friend, I thought a lot about the messages I want coming from me.  I thought about how I can be more intentional about being positive and trying to respond to negativity with positivity, thereby creating a force field to deflect the negativity.  It seems a bit superhero-ish but I believe it is a pathway to true happiness.  I knew, in that moment, that I could not change this other friend and would prefer to not harp on her unhappiness.  Instead, I needed to turn inwards and understand how I could counter it with my own positivity.

For many these are lessons that may have long ago been learned.  For others, like me, the doors are beginning to open and new opportunities and explorations are beginning.  And still, for some, they remain locked and closed off, struggling to find the pathway to trust themselves and others enough to let go and be vulnerable.  No matter where you are in this process, it is important to keep moving forward because it is worth the trip.  And, now that I like to write personal notes, I’ll send a postcard from my next destination!

MOTHER OF THE YEAR…NOT


When I had my first child more than a decade ago, I did not give much thought to the challenges of being a working mom.  I actually looked forward to going back to work when my maternity leave was up.  I dropped my 3 month-old son off at daycare, in the caring hands of very sweet and loving women, and did not look back.  In the days and weeks following my return to work, many other mothers asked me how I was handling the transition and wanted to know how many times I had called the daycare to check on my son or how frequently I was crying.  I look at them quizzically.

No tears.

No calls.

Was there something wrong with me?  While I adored my new little precious baby, I was kind of enjoying my return to my pre-baby life and was getting on with the business of being a working mother.

After my second son was born three years later, I landed my dream job at Working Mother magazine.  I had been a huge fan of the magazine even before my kids were born and I was excited to work in an environment that was focused on and committed to working moms.  Shortly after I joined the company, my boss and I were driving to see a client and she was sharing with me one of the many ironies of parenthood.  She told me of her challenges with her children – both teenagers at the time – who were losing interest in spending time with her.  She pointed out how when our children are young and demand much of our time, we believe they need us the most.  In fact, when they are older and want little to do with us is when they need us the most.  So many women choose to stay home with their children during their infant and toddler years and return to work once their children are in school.  The reality is that the time most beneficial for us to be around for our kids is really when they are teenagers and are pushing us away.  “Bigger kids, bigger problems,” so many people told me.  I could hardly understand what my boss was talking about with a 6 month-old and nearly 4 year-old at home.  How could they need me any more than they do now?  She laughed and said “you’d like 30 minutes away from your children right now and I’d like 30 minutes with mine.  I will never forget that.  Especially now that my children are beginning to want to be with me less and less.

Many years have gone by and I no longer work at Working Mother.  In fact, I chose to leave my full-time corporate job several years ago for the reasons that my boss pointed out that day.  I was beginning to feel the need to be around my children more as they were moving ahead in elementary school because I was seeing their lives becoming more complicated.  Getting home at 7pm and leaving at 7:30am meant that I had very little time to influence them, nurture them, support them and guide them.  Suddenly, homework was an issue.  Now, they had schedules for sports and other extracurricular activities and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to transport them places with just my husband (who was already working from home full-time) at the ready.  I knew it was time for a transition for me because, while they did not think so, my kids needed me – and I needed to be there for them.  I did not think much about my changing role because I still had the same independent mindset that I had when my children were babies.  I still wanted to have “me” time and I did not feel any compulsion to hover over them.  I know myself well enough to know that if I spent too much time with my kids, we would all be very unhappy.  However, I did not want my time with them limited to 2 hours per day because they needed much more from me.  We had to find a happy medium and we did.

So, we fast forward the clock to today.  As a family, we have settled into a new normal with mommy and daddy both working either from home or locally, with mommy taking sporadic business trips and being with clients a few days per week but mostly available.  My life is still very busy because, as a type A, I am always looking for more projects to fill my day.  If I do not have client work, I volunteer my time.  I sit on two boards, I have friends I like to spend time with, I exercise three or four times a week and I have hobbies.  Suddenly that 9-5 job with commuting seems like a walk in the park.

This week I had a little – well, maybe a big – eye-opener.  Last night, after I spent the day with a client in the city, went to kickboxing and then came home to force down some dinner before chatting with a colleague about some challenges from day, I realized both of my children had either not started or not completed their homework.  It was 9pm and definitely time for bed.  My younger son decided he wanted to attempt to do some of his homework before bed and my older one just abandoned it and said he would finish it up in the morning.  To top it off, my younger son showed me a paper from class that identified him as “star of the week” which was set to begin on Monday and now it was Wednesday and we had done nothing.  I was mortified.  Where had I been?  Why was I not checking in on my kids?  I had worked out every day, had a dinner meeting, had work calls every night and an assortment of other matters that I had tended to yet I had not noticed that my children were spending their afternoons and evenings playing xbox and not attending to their schoolwork.

While I have avoided getting caught up in working mom drama and guilt for many years, I was suddenly in the midst of an emotional downward spiral.  I felt really horrible that I had fallen asleep at the wheel and neglected my responsibility of parenting my bigger kids with bigger problems.  Then I started thinking about all the things I had forgotten to take care of while I was “selfishly” attending to work and other matters.  My younger son’s costume for his show was due in a week and I had not yet even begun to deal with that.  I realized that I had not even had a conversation with my kids since Monday – how did that happen and why hadn’t they noticed either?

Mother of the year, that is me for sure.

So, I did what any good mother would do.  I punished them.  I took away their xbox privileges, removed additional electronics from their weekday lives and instituted some new policies around homework.  But, truth be told, I am punishing myself the most.  I feel guilty and neglectful and, while I know that it is not the end of the world and it happens to everyone, I am committed to doing better.  I am not prepared to give up my work or my “me” time but I am prepared to struggle with the battle my boss told me about all those years ago.  I need to be more conscious and committed to getting that time with my children now that they are far less interested in giving in to me.  I am going to demand and prioritize my 30 minutes a day.  Maybe then I can throw away my  thorny MOTY crown.

PARDON ME


Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.
– Hannah More

I get a lot of inspiration for what I write from what I read.  And, I try to read as much as I can.  I am obsessed with other’s blogs and try to reference them and share them as much as possible.  People touch me and help me understand the world in a more meaningful way than I ever could on my own.  I have been diagnosed as an extroverted thinker which means that collaboration is critical for me.  When working with clients or sorting through problems, I do my best work when talking it through with others.  It is not that I do not have my own ideas but my ideas flow more readily when I am thinking aloud with others.  A friend shared a blog post last week that I checked out and, while I did not 100% relate to the author’s feelings or her place in the world, I appreciated where she was coming from and she was provocative enough to make me contemplate my own life.

What I related to the most was her background.  She said a few things that struck a chord with me – deeply.

“I’m usually an honest person. I am creative and kind. I’m brave and loyal and trustworthy. I’m smart. Wicked smart, sometimes. I’m quite funny. I make big mistakes and I say I’m sorry and then quickly forgive myself.  And that nakedness, brokenness, and sensitivity I was born with? They’ve turned out to be my greatest gifts. My nakedness allows me to tell the truth without shame or fear and my brokenness is what allows others to trust and love me. My sensitivity is what drives me to feel the pain of others and love them so fiercely. The parts of me that made the first half of my life so exceptionally hard are the exact same parts making the second half exceptional. 

Life’s about how you use what you got, I think.

I was right when I was little. Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real.

I write this blog because it’s part of my healing process. Healing starts fresh each morning. I pour myself out and drink you all in. Because sharing life’s brutiful is what connects us and makes us less afraid. Life can’t be stuffed down with food or booze or exercise or work or cutting or shopping for long. Hiding from life causes its own unique pain, and it’s lonely pain. We have to Live – we have to show up for ourselves and each other – even when it hurts. It’s the only way through.”

I love every word of that and it resonates with me on a very deep level.  The one part that I could not get out of my head were I make big mistakes and I say I’m sorry and then quickly forgive myself.

I make a lot of mistakes in my life.  We all do.  I hurt people, I say mean things, I am insensitive.  I am human.  Naturally, I make the most mistakes with the people closest to me – my husband, my family and my close friends.  I make these mistakes and I expect people to forgive me for them.  Mostly, they do.  Yet, I rarely forgive myself.  I wish I could pick myself up, forgive myself and move on.  Regrettably, that is usually not the case for me.

I have spent a lot of time in recent years focusing on guilt and the force it plays in my life.  I often feel guilty.  Mostly about things I probably should not feel guilty about.  I remember being told that I should take all my feelings of guilt and lock them away in a closet inside of me and throw away the key.  There is no room for guilt in our lives. Remorse and growth is powerful; guilt is crippling.  Guilt is actually what often causes us to do really bad things – to ourselves and others.  It is an emotion that we have little control over yet it sometimes completely controls our life.  In my journey of trying to release myself from absorbing all of the pain those around me have suffered (and taking the responsibility for it), guilt has become a big topic of conversation.

One of the primary definitions of guilt is “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.”  Ironically, so many of us experience guilt that is completely unrelated to any moral or ethical offense or crime.  Our guilt is lingering residue from experiences that lay either unresolved or we have not granted ourselves forgiveness for.  As much as we are willing to forgive others for any wrongdoings, we seldom offer ourselves the same courtesy.

I will admit that forgiveness is not something at which I am extremely adept.  While I definitely hold grudges against people who have hurt me, I am usually very quick to forego my grudge and forgive them – sometimes at the cost of squashing my own feelings.  I do not like to be angry and do not like to make other people feel bad.  In my family, we never said “I’m sorry” and I learned later in life the power of those words when they are connected with genuine commitment to the apology.  Often, my husband and I fight and forget to apologize for the hurtful things we say to one another (well, mostly I forget) and expect that, because we are married and love each other, that we will just move forward.  I was recently talking to a friend about this who told me that she refrains, as often as possible, from making any biting comments that she cannot take back because no apology can pull the words back in.  I’d like to think I could subscribe to such disciplined behavior but I know myself better.  I know I have a temper and I know that, like any animal, I immediately fight back when I feel vulnerable or under fire.  It is what I do afterwards that matters.  I can always apologize to my husband and sincerely ask for forgiveness but will I ever truly forgive myself for the hurt that I cause?

I try to bear a sense of responsibility for my actions and work very hard to not cause pain or suffering to others AND I know that, once again, I am human.  Also, I know that when I let go of my bad feelings towards myself or others, I feel freed.  It is a feeling like no other.  It is weight lifted from my body.  It is a liberation of my heart.  It is a spiritual rebirth.  Hanging on to anger towards anyone, especially myself, hurts even more than the original sin that caused me to feel angry in the first place.  And, while I continue to mandate no resolutions, I do pay attention to the universe which is telling me right now that I need to focus on forgiveness towards others but mostly of myself.  We cannot control how others treat us or feel about us but we have absolute oversight of how we treat ourselves and the more we are able to free ourselves of pain and guilt, the easier and happier our lives will be – and the easier it will be to deal with pain as it arises.

So, I thank my friend (and all the friends) who posted the link to this blog because it gave me a message that I so readily needed.  Now let’s see what I can do with it.

THE GIFT OF RECEIVING


It’s Christmas.  The most wonderful time of the year.  We run around like lunatics for the month starting the day after (or the evening of, in my case) Thanksgiving hunting for the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones.  We overspend, overstress and then, come December 25th, all is right in the world.  It is a ritual that is equally insane and sublime.

When I was a kid we did not really celebrate Christmas.  We actually did not really celebrate anything.  My mother was Jewish and my father was Italian Catholic.  He insisted on having some semblance of Christmas while they were married and I recall some version of a “Chanukah bush” that was stored away in the attic.  Once my parents divorced when I was about 8 or 9, that went out the window and my mother, for many reasons, did not carry on any traditions.  We did do some sort of ad hoc family gatherings around Christmastime and did exchange gifts most years but it was never anything rich with celebration or tradition.

I don’t recall a lot of presents as a kid but, regardless, I always took great pleasure in the act of going out and buying gifts and wrapping them up.  I was mesmerized by beautiful gifts all wrapped up in colorful paper with big gorgeous bows.  I worked really hard to perfect my gift wrapping skills and learned how to make a mean bow.  I was twirling ribbons with scissors as a grade schooler.  It always bummed me out that we did not have a big family and that we did not have a lot of money because I wanted to go out and buy the biggest, most beautiful gifts I could find for everyone, wrap them up with the most stunning paper and present them with all the pride I could muster.  Instead, my mother bought cheap dime store paper – so thin I could practically see right through it and ripped the minute it found the corner of a box.  I would pick up little trinkets here and there to give to the various people in my life in order to fulfill my desire to give as if I, myself, were Santa.

I never thought as much about getting gifts because there never was a wish list or boxes and boxes to open.  And, I was so impatient that, on more than one occasion, I unwrapped and rewrapped the presents I discovered in my mother’s bedroom, effectively ruining any joy I might have had when I finally opened the package.  (That is a whole story in itself!) I really focused my energies on what I could buy for others and how I could make the gifts look as perfect as possible.  As I got older and was on my own, I continued with my own tradition of giving gifts to as many people as I could in order to see their eyes light up with joy when they opened the absolutely perfect (fill in the blank) that they had subtly mentioned over coffee or had looked at in a window while we strolling through the mall or down a midtown street.  I was always in search of the perfect gift and was careful to pay attention to any clues that would help me on my mission.  Once I got married and had children, the opportunity for gift giving increased exponentially and my joy at seeing my husband or children open up a much-desired package made my heart sing.

Now, do not let me fool you into thinking I am so altruistic that I do not enjoy being on the receiving end of the gifts.  In fact, I love getting gifts.  But, receiving gifts does not come easy to me.  That goes for both tangible and intangible gifts.  Despite the fact that we are about to embark upon the biggest day of wasted gift wrap, I am acutely aware that some of the greatest gifts I have or will receive do not come in a box with gift wrap and a bow.  Perhaps there is guilt attached to this (OK, of course there is guilt attached to this). All I know is that I have heard the words “Just say thank you,” once too often that it makes me really think about how I could do a better job of mastering the art of receiving gratefully and graciously – and I know I am not alone.

For me, it’s pretty complicated and it is something that I need to work on.  Since gifts are coming at me all the time (mostly in the form of the intangibles – the ones I love the most), it is a bit challenging to not be a gifted receiver.  Of course, I am grateful.  I am eternally grateful.  After I get over the “this is so nice of you, you didn’t really have to” about a hundred times, I stop and think about how fortunate I am to have such goodness and kindness in my life.  But not before I have assuredly annoyed someone else who just wants me to be able to receive their gift because giving feels really, really good.

On Christmas (or whatever holiday you may celebrate), receiving is expected and nearly mandatory.  Every other day of the year, minus your birthday, it might present a different set of challenges.  So, I encourage you to think about what kind of receiver you are and if you can offer those who are offering you a gift, the return of a gift of receiving.  Just say thank you and move on.

To those of you who have given me gifts of any kind, I say thank you.  To those of you to whom I have given gifts, please do not feel obligated to reciprocate and enjoy whatever you have received and know that the gifts were given with lots of love.  To all of you, enjoy the beautiful boxes with ribbons that you may receive tomorrow and also be on the lookout for all those meaningful intangible gifts coming your way.  And remember, the best way to say thank you is to simply say “thank you.”