Finding the time: An upside-down Christmas, part 3

You add another item to the grocery list. Hop online to order a couple more gifts on Amazon. Hear your phone ding with a low balance alert. Lovely. Remember that you need to order another stocking because there will be someone new at Christmas this year… where did you get the other ones? Search online ...

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You add another item to the grocery list. Hop online to order a couple more gifts on Amazon. Hear your phone ding with a low balance alert. Lovely. Remember that you need to order another stocking because there will be someone new at Christmas this year… where did you get the other ones? Search online and put off the purchase until after payday. Take another look at your schedule—when will you bake the cookies for the church craft sale? Or the pies for the first of three family get-togethers? Christmas itself feels like an eternity away because you still have all of your decorations in boxes in the attic. Speaking of decorating (and cleaning), you really need to have your carpet cleaned, but who has the money or time for that? Will the kids’ teachers like getting loaves of homemade bread or should you spring for Starbucks gift cards this year? You need to remind your daughter to buy a gift for her Sunshine lady. Oh, yeah—don’t forget the Sunday school teachers. And youth group helpers. Oh, and you need to email your in-laws to tell them about the Christmas play and band concert. Which reminds you, your son has outgrown his black pants. Again. Maybe you can run to Target to get another pair on your lunch hour. Wonder if you can possibly take another day off work to do some (more) shopping. Glare at the box of Christmas cards on your desk because you know you will never, ever find time to address those envelopes. Turn off the radio in a huff because you’re sick and tired of hearing about that silent night. Who gets silence this kind of year?

Oh, yeah. That reminds me. I need to pray and feel thankful.

Maybe you all don’t live with this kind of chaotic inner dialogue. Granted, I’m exaggerating (but, truly, only slightly, and only because I’ve included a couple items from years past). Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain for a little bit because it just never stops.

In week 1, I talked about the stress of money and ways to give creatively and inexpensively. Week 2 was about grief, because losses seem to be magnified this time of year when there’s such a push to be happy happy happy and find joy and sing and celebrate. This week, we’re talking about time because it’s one of the hardest things to manage when you’re bombarded with all of the external things imposed upon you during the Christmas season. But let’s be honest—a lot of what we have imposed on us is imposed BY us. We’re the ones who want to host the perfect get-together. We’re the ones wanting to surprise people with the exact right gifts. We’re the only ones who have noticed that there are no Christmas lights shining through our windows at night. We’re the ones who have lost sight of what it’s all about because we’re too frazzled to remember.

Or, at least, that’s what happens to me. Something’s gotta give.

Give yourself the gift of grace. First and foremost, remember that the reason that Jesus was born and is celebrated isn’t so that we could stress out about all of these things. Allow yourself time to relax. Give yourself permission to let some things go. Don’t compare yourself to people online—in fact, maybe avoid Pinterest altogether this month. This season is about celebration and about the Prince of Peace. The best and more important thing we can do is give ourselves grace.

Lower your expectations. Why? Because, as Anne Lamott recently wrote on Facebook, expectations are disappointments under construction. Maybe you’re worried that your mother-in-law will notice how dirty your sink is. Or perhaps you feel intimidated by the magazine-worthy wrapping on your friend’s gifts and want yours to measure up. You may think that if you can just set the perfect stage, your bickering relatives will suddenly get along. But in the process, you may be putting too much on yourself. It might be time to decide to decorate only the tree and mantle and leave the other decorations in the attic. Or forego the icicle lights on the outside. Or have just one kind of pie and skip a party or two.

Ask for help. I have plenty of things; there’s really very little I need. But I can’t do everything all by myself. Christmas is a time when people look for ways to give, so allow yourself to embrace that. Ask for help and let someone else bring the stuffing. Teach your teenager how to make your famous sugar cream pie. Or ask your friend’s teenage son to stop by after school to carry a few boxes of decorations down from the attic. Check the “gift wrap” option when you order online, or hire a teenager from church to wrap your gifts one afternoon while you’re putting up the tree.

Be practical. Take a few minutes to make a plan. It will save you time in the long run. Group similar tasks. If you’re giving three different people books for Christmas, order then all at once. Buy all clothing in the same shopping session. Figure out where you’re likely to buy the gifts on your list and, when you’re on one side of town, take advantage of that to get everything there in one trip, instead of driving all over the place for one or two things at a time. If you’re baking, buy lots of ingredients and set aside one block of time to get it done. If a friend also likes to bake, split tasks—she can make a double batch of chocolate covered peanuts and you can make a double batch of peppermint bark, and you can give away twice as many types of goodies in half the time. Maybe you want to invest a little extra time to get your address list typed in online so every year from this year forward you can print off address labels instead of hand writing them. Perhaps you should look at your boxes of leftover decorations, once you’re done, and throw out (or donate) any items you didn’t actually use this year. Then you’ll have fewer boxes to store away and less to sort through next year when it’s time to put the decorations back up.

Use your Sharpie to cross items off your calendar. In my book (which I know you haven’t read yet because it doesn’t come out until May), I write about my friend Karin. When her schedule became too complicated, she went through and evaluated her priorities. If something didn’t fit with her family’s plans or schedule, she crossed it out. Because we don’t always have to do the things we think we have to do. This might be the month you decide to skip book club, or let your daughter swim the away meet without you cheering in the stands. If doing it will bring more stress than pleasure, and if not doing it will not bring other disastrous results, let it go. If you miss a Christmas open house or two, make a point to get together with those families another time—in 2015.

I’ll do it next year. We don’t like to put off the things that are fun, but sometimes it’s the smart thing to do. I love to get together with my book club, but we decided to wait until January to free up some time in December for other things. (That also means we can shop after-Christmas sales for those gifts.) If there is something you can postpone without it causing a hardship, do it.

One of the most valuable gifts we have to offer is our time, and often, the people we love would rather spend time with you than to unwrap the perfect gift. Forego gifts with your friends and make plans, instead, to have an uninterrupted hour together to catch up over coffee or lunch. In January.

Beg, borrow and steal. In terms of time, that is. Look closely at your deadlines—are there any that can be shifted? If you’re not sure, ask. Shop online while you eat lunch at your desk or drink your coffee or wait in school pickup lines. Have to be at the band concert an hour before it starts? Take your address book and a stack of Christmas cards and get to work. Use the time while things are baking to wrap presents. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, make extras of each meal and freeze them to have when things get hectic. When relatives are coming over, decide that pizza would be just as good as the meal you were originally planning and save yourself a trip to the grocery and three hours of prep time. Rather than have coffee with two different friends on different mornings, get together as a group and free up another morning to clean or shop.

**

Paring down commitments will look different for each of us. You are the one who needs to—and gets to—decide what Christmas looks like to you and to your household. Stand firm, and don’t apologize. Going overboard on Christmas does you no good if you’ve spent every available penny and ounce of energy and you head into a new year defeated, depleted and depressed. Give yourself permission to make changes, to cut a few corners. No one is going to remember the food for long, but they’ll remember your hospitality and warm hugs. And if they see you other times of the year, your friends won’t be upset if you missed singing carols at their holiday party. Their schedules are crazy, too, so they’ll get it.

When life is overwhelming, finding time to do something more seems impossible—but this is when it’s the most critical of all. Give yourself a few minutes to pray. Shoot for just five minutes a day. It can be while you drink your first cup of coffee, or after you get the kids off to school, during an afternoon break from work, or when everyone else has gone to bed and you’re the only one around. Your prayer can look different this season—maybe you don’t “talk” at all, but simply meditate on God’s peace. Think about one aspect of Him and dwell on all of the ways and places where you’ve seen Him. Or focus on just imagining Him right there with you—and then know that He’s not only in your imagination. Once you’ve taken a close look, you’ll see that some things matter more than others. And you’ll realize that God is present in the midst of all of the craziness, as well as the peace. Give yourself a fantastic and unusual thing—a Christmas that is manageable. One filled with peace and people you love.

And the God who gave it all to you.

What do you do to save time or make the most of limited time during the holidays?

An Upside-Down Christmas (part 1)

Since I lost Mom three and a half years ago, Christmas has been decidedly less fun. The best part of Christmas was finding really fun, quirky gifts that only my mom would like—and lots of them. She did the same for me. But now, she’s not on my gift list. My kids are past the ...

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Since I lost Mom three and a half years ago, Christmas has been decidedly less fun. The best part of Christmas was finding really fun, quirky gifts that only my mom would like—and lots of them. She did the same for me. But now, she’s not on my gift list. My kids are past the age of waiting by the tree with eyes full of wonder, but instead have few needs and fairly expensive wants (I’m not criticizing them; just saying how things have changed). My life—with its work, activities, and responsibilities—has gotten fuller. Busier. I have less time to “do” Christmas and less desire to add Christmas clutter to my décor… because in a few short weeks, I’ll then have to undo all the “cheer.”

But this post isn’t going to be a downer. I’m just saying that because of all of these things, I’m particularly aware that the holidays aren’t always fun. I feel like everyone expects things to go perfectly—over-the-limit credit cards to miraculously get paid off in January, family members to bury the strife they’ve stirred up for years, pounds to drop off once the Christmas fudge is all gone. And, even if you’ve lost someone you love, the hole in your heart should be filled by happy memories and other people you love. If these things happen for you, I’ll be the first to celebrate with you.

But this series of posts is for those who might be feeling stress heading into Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For the next few Fridays, I’m going to try to look at Christmas’s stressors from a different point of view. Backwards. Inside-out. Creatively. And of course, my favorite—upside down. I’m hoping these ideas will inspire you—and remind me—to find the joy in the holidays again.

STRESS #1: MONEY

Well, let’s be honest: the issue is really a lack of it, isn’t it? I love to give gifts, so I tend to buy too much. And I start a few months early, thanks to the equally-marvelous-and-terrible phenomenon of online shopping.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m so tired of hearing how gifts aren’t important. (I know, I’m such a rebel.) I fully understand that material things are not the point. That we don’t need to spend a cent. That we’re throwing money away on things that we don’t need. But here’s the thing: giving gifts is my love language. When well-meaning people (or those who are wisely trying to protect their own over-extended budgets) suggest that we don’t exchange gifts, I feel like I’ve been punched. Truly, I am fine with not getting a thing. But I hate to be robbed of my privilege to give. When I give a gift, it is because I’ve discovered that tangible things help remind people of the love I try to show them all the time. Friends, some of whom live in other states, comment that every time they see the glass bowl I gave them as a wedding gift (or the antique flower salt and pepper shakers or the Jane Austen action figure), they think of me. One friend even said that although her children haven’t met me more than a couple times, they know who I am because they’ve heard the story of a gift I gave their mom. You don’t have to convince me of all the reasons gifts should not be (and are not) the focus of Christmas or remind me what it’s all about. I know, I really do. But the fact remains that gifts are often a part of our celebrations.

So today, as we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and the frenzy of blockbuster sales and extreme shopping, we’re going to talk about some gifts you can give that will cost you very little but be meaningful to give or receive. Some take a little more time than others, but the price tag will be small.

What’s in a name? Spend some time on eBay or etsy or Google searching for the names of people on your list. One year I gave Mom a framed matchbook from Hotel O’Dell, an old hotel with my parents’ last name, and a memoir called Miss O’Dell. I found antique sheet music for a song with my daughter Katie’s first name in the title. I found a beer label with a drawing of the Stanley Hotel, the hotel from The Shining (written by my husband’s favorite author, Stephen King), and framed it for my husband. These things fit in inexpensive, standard-size frames, but they showed thought. You can also order (through a site like etsy) customized pendants with a person’s name or a favorite phrase stamped into the metal.

Pick a theme. It can be simple or complex. Is her favorite color lime green? Then buy a few assorted items—pens, a notebook, nail polish, socks—and put them in a lime green gift bag. One year my friend Marcia gave me a bag of gifts with a card that said, “Because you’re bigger than life.” It contained an oversize candy bar, giant highlighter, super-size bottle of wine, and so on. I just put together an inexpensive correspondence kit for Marcia’s 7-year-old daughter with a bunch of items found on clearance—notecards and pens, some 47¢ greeting cards from Walmart, a small address book, stickers, and a sheet of stamps in a plastic box. Maybe you could choose a favorite recipe, copy it onto a pretty card, and include it with one or two ingredients (a gourmet bottle of olive oil or vanilla extract, a fancy bag of pasta, or pretty cupcake liners and sprinkles—easily found at places like World Market and HomeGoods). Perhaps you give away a movie night—a $5 CD from a clearance bin somewhere, some microwave popcorn, an oversized box of candy and a couple bottles of pop.

Do the shuffle. Come up with some kind of exchange—make a game of it—and instead of buying gifts for everyone at a specific gathering, have each person bring one thing. A $10 gift card to their favorite restaurant or clothing store. A favorite book (new or used). A favorite movie (dig through the $5 bins at the big department stores). Or do the “white elephant” game and try to come up with the funniest, most outrageous gifts. You may use something you already own or spend months scouring yard sales and Goodwill looking for just the right thing. Let the exchange be fun and allow yourselves to spend time enjoying it, so it’s not focused on the actual gift itself but the experience and laughter around it.

Know any authors? Ask them to sign books to the person getting the gift. Plan ahead, and try to attend author fairs and library events throughout the year where people will be signing the books they wrote.

Give the gift of you. Make something, even if you’re not particularly crafty—homemade candy, loaves of bread, or coupon books of chores. Or spend some time on Pinterest looking for ideas. (Don’t be disappointed if the finished product doesn’t look as good as the pictures. Just have fun making it.) Order reprints of favorite photos and put them into a small album. You could even write a short letter telling that person what they mean to you. Or use a paint pen to write your favorite scripture around a Christmas ornament. Alternatively, shop in local, independent stores, markets and craft fairs and buy unusual or hand-crafted products.

You’ve been framed. Print 5×7” or 8×10” copies of pretty photos you took on a recent vacation or hike through the woods, put them in inexpensive frames, and give those as gifts. Copy your favorite poem or Bible verse onto a pretty sheet of paper and draw little flourishes around it. Or dig through boxes of old photos until you find a photo of the two of you together and have a copy made. Go to the local antique store and look through boxes of old postcards. Select one with a sweet sentiment or old-fashioned illustration of a town or landmark that your friend likes.

Write a prayer or gratitude journal for your friend or relative. One year, I wanted to give my friend Peggy something meaningful. She believes strongly in the power of prayer—as do I—but saying “I prayed for you” feels rather vague and abstract. So I got a small journal and spent one month before Christmas recording my prayers for her. Each day I had a different focus—each of her kids, her husband, ministry, work, relationships, finances, faith. At the end of the month, she was moved by the gift and loved reading through it. It represented, in a tangible way, the prayers I said for her.

**

I could go on and on. I love this kind of thing. But I’ll stop before this becomes the world’s longest post. (It may already be too late.)

Next week, I’ll be talking about holidays colored by loss or overshadowed by grief and suggesting some ways to meaningfully remember or honor someone you’re missing. In subsequent weeks, we’ll discuss time (finding it, filling it, prioritizing it) and ways to infuse spiritual meaning when it often gets obscured by everything else. If you have suggestions for additional topics or ideas you’d like me to include, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments or email kellyostanley-at-me-dot-com.

In the meantime, enjoy your turkey and pumpkin pie, or whatever your particular Thanksgiving tradition is. And know that I’m thankful for you—for all the ways you encourage me, and for the fact that you actually want to read my rambling writings :-).

When God doesn’t care what you want

Summertime, to me, is never lounging at the pool, slathered in sunscreen. It’s not taking my kids to museums and on picnics. No, my summers involve running my graphic design business from home, but with three kids coming and going all day long. A schedule so full my calendar program can’t fit all the day’s ...

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21371236988Summertime, to me, is never lounging at the pool, slathered in sunscreen. It’s not taking my kids to museums and on picnics. No, my summers involve running my graphic design business from home, but with three kids coming and going all day long. A schedule so full my calendar program can’t fit all the day’s events in the little squares in month view. My stress levels ratchet up. Clutter consumes my environment.

And did I mention I have a book to finish?

So it makes perfect sense to me that my dad chooses now to sell his house.

But not just any house — the home I grew up in. The one my mom restored, decorated and adored. The one my parents moved into when I was 11 months old, that was built by my great-great grandfather. The place where Mom wanted to be (and was) when she died two years ago. The land on which it sits has belonged to my family for over 150 years — and, other than my sister and me, Mom was the last family member on this branch of the family tree.

My dad can’t bear to be in the house anymore. He’s in Florida now, he’s in love, and it’s too much to maintain and take care of this huge yard and old home if he’s not here.

I get it. But I don’t like it.

The other night as I was trying to sleep, I had a brainstorm. Aha! My secret weapon! I would pray that the house wouldn’t sell. At least not right now.

I don’t care if it’s not a very charitable prayer. But selling it — and the work involved in clearing out 4.2 acres (45 years’-worth of storage in a house with attic, garage, barn and my dad’s former studio building) — is something I just do not have time for right now. I’m barely holding it together. I shut out the voice inside that, hesitantly, suggested maybe faster is better. Ripping off a band-aid and all that.

I prayed my prayer anyway. God, I can’t do this right now. I do not have time.

So imagine my disgust surprise when, 48 hours after listing the house, Dad got two offers. Two more showings are scheduled in the next 48 hours. And all I can do is — well, cry, of course — and look up at the sky and say, “Really, God? Are you kidding me?!”

It’s not the first time God has seemed to ignore what I wanted. And it won’t be the last. But for now, I guess I’m just going to have to fall back on this: God, if this is what You want to do, then do it. But You’re gonna have to equip me to somehow get through this. Provide others who can do the work. Provide sufficient funds to hire out work. Make me OK with not having time to sort, pack, or otherwise handle everything in this house. Help me accept that we may have to box everything up and shove it into storage for the time being.

Help me be happy for my dad, because I’m having a lot of trouble with that right now.

Just get me through the summer.

I know there are bigger problems. Injustices, heartbreak, evil and tragedy and despair. It’s just a house, right?

But this camel’s back is breaking. The weight of it all is too much. Please pray for me. And please understand if you don’t hear as much from me on this blog through the rest of the summer.

God has an interesting sense of humor. The whole “praying upside down” idea came through the process of selling our old house — a process that took two years and was harder than I ever dreamed. But I saw Him in all of it. And He gave me strength to get through it. Now I’m on the other end — a house selling too fast. Lord, give me insight. Help me understand. Help me pray and worship You anyway and not get so caught up in my own frustration that I become bitter and ugly and push You away again, like I’ve done too many times when things don’t go my way. Teach me. Comfort me. Hold me. Help me not feel so alone in all of this. And remind me, over and over, that the ‘no’ you’ve given me may also be a huge, wonderful, miraculous ‘yes’ to the person buying this. Maybe even to my dad.

Let me practice what I preach. Help me to find a new perspective — upside down or whatever You’ve got for me.

Just let me see You in this. Because I know You’re there.

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