Thursday, December 31, 2009

as the year wraps up (or as the new one begins)

I have a daily practice of writing a list of things for which I'm grateful. This list routinely includes family and friends, my job, my home, and other things I consider essentials, and occasionally includes luxuries like NPR, compelling fiction, Christmas carols, and my mother's codcakes.

I also have a daily practice of listing the reasons why I should be given credit. And by "credit," I really mean little nods to myself. There's no actual credit (no gold stars, no pennies in the jar, no messages sent to Santa on my behalf), and normally, nobody sees it but me, so the reasons aren't generally colossal. They're usually things like completing a task I set myself to do, facing a challenge (like the pile of godforsaken Christmas cookies I walked away from yesterday), or taking a baby step forward in my thinking. Sometimes, however, I get credit just for getting out of bed! (This morning "being me" made the list.)

When I looked over my lists for the year, one of the things I'm continually grateful for is my job, and the money it brings me. And I looked at a number of the other things for which I'm grateful, and many of them could really use some of that money. So this morning, I sat down and gave money to my local NPR station (for Wait Wait Don't Tell Me), Chicago Public Radio (for This American Life) and the New York Public Library (for books).

I'll let you guess what will show up on my list of kudos tomorrow.

One of the things I intend to do today, on the last day of the year, is to create a list of 50 things for which I am grateful. They may be events from the past year (like meeting one of my new best friends), opportunities for next year (like meeting Mr. Right), and constants throughout my life (like my family). I encourage you to take a moment and do the same. And then, if there are things on your list that could use your support, give it! Volunteer at a shelter. Give your old clothes to Dress for Success. Or give money. Ira Glass said that if each podcast listener of This American Life gave only $5, we could cover the cost of the show. Five dollars!

(Since I'm truly grateful for what the show brings to my life, I gave $15.)

And at the very, very least, tell two people on your list that you're grateful they're in your life. It makes a difference.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Expectations

When I think back to Christmases of my childhood, I have a strong recollection of feeling let down. Either people didn't like the presents I got them as much as I had hoped they would, or I didn't get the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker (for the third time in a row... Santa!), or Christmas just didn't live up to what I had hoped it would be.

I tried, for many years after childhood, to make Christmas live up to itself. To invest more time and energy into picking out presents for people, or trying to force my family to behave in a certain way that made Christmas feel more Christmassy... but it never worked.

This year, I tried something new. I released all my expectations about Christmas. It would be what it would be, and I would enjoy it for what it was.

Easier said than done, of course.

I had some help with this effort, however. My family is fantastic, and we've gotten to a place in our gift giving where we are very clear when we receive something that we don't want. We simply say, "Oh, I have one just like this at home..." and the other person knows that the gift didn't quite land the way it was intended. Nobody says "Yuck! I hate this!" or throws it on the floor in a fit of pique. Nobody pretends to want something they don't want.

And knowing this about my family -- that they might have one just like it at home -- makes me less connected to the idea of giving them the "perfect" gift. And the reality is that you never know if someone is going to have one just like it at home or not. So why get attached to the idea that you are a perfect gift giver? It's just likely to lead to let down.

Similarly, we used to have a tradition of eating Christmas Eve dinner every year with family friends. They have since moved to Florida and Europe, so that regular tradition has disappeared. And that fluidity of what we're doing on Christmas Eve has freed up some expectations, too. I don't know what's going to happen when I get there. I don't know what it's supposed to feel like. So I can't try to force it into a shape that feels familiar. And again, the reality is that you never know what's going to happen. You can have ideas, agendas, hopes, and plans, but they all amount to a big hill of beans when faced with other people.

It sounds easy to release your expectations, and in fact, it's not as hard as it sounds. It takes attention and energy. But the benefits of not feeling let down so far outstrip the amount of focus required to be laid back that I definitely recommend giving it a try.

Do it one day at work. Just release your expectation that things are going to go the way you think they will. Maybe the train will come, maybe it won't. Maybe your boss will praise you, and maybe she'll scold you. When you're not counting on anything, it makes each thing that happens an adventure!

A perfect time to try it would be New Year's Eve. Because if that holiday isn't laden with expectations, I don't know what is!