Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Way to end an Old Year

In my family New Year’s Eve was always a special occasion and wrought with meaning especially for my mother. Every year she would tell us, “Where you are when the bells ring on New Year’s Eve is where you will be for the rest of the year.” As a kid this meant that our house had to be clean, that we had baths and new pajamas, if there was homework or projects they had to be completed, and everything in our house was in perfect order.

Of course, in those years no one paid attention to the things that were slightly out of place like the growing tension between my parents or my mother’s addiction to Dexedrine. There was no thought to putting intra-personal or interpersonal order in our lives.

For years I carried forward this tradition making sure my house was clean, laundry done, hair and nails and toes perfected. I even chose my new years eve activities to meet the law of “when the bells ring”, one sad year locking myself in my room at the stroke of midnight to symbolize to myself that I would indeed end a painful relationship in the coming months. Another year I made sure I was sitting at my desk at 12:01 to ensure a year of commitment to writing.

Today as I prepare for this evening and the change to a new year I have a new take on my mother’s teaching. I will not do laundry and not clean the kitchen. I will leave the to-do list undone and I’ll enjoy the lights of our Christmas tree one more night.

My hope for myself when the bells ring tonight is that I am imperfect, undone and incomplete and that I will accept myself as a work in progress rather than a woman frozen in time. When the stroke of midnight comes I hope to be relaxed, laughing and pleased with myself and that is what I hope I will carry into 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gratitude A to Z

Here is another take on making a gratitude list. I got this from Mary Karr (new book, Lit, old book, The Liar’s Club—both books fabulous accounts of growing up in an alcoholic family and becoming an alcoholic and then—yea!—a recovering alcoholic).

Karr says that one of her early sponsor’s recommended making a gratitude list each day using each letter of the alphabet—A to Z.

For example:
I am grateful for AA meetings, Bus was on time, Cat was not lost, Donna my sponsor etc.
This is also one you can do with a friend out loud—or a good one to do in a boring meeting at work just listing your key words A to Z—and everyone will think you are making work-related notes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Defense of Late Shoppers

This is one of my favorite days of the year. This afternoon I’ll be heading out to start my Christmas shopping. For a long time I was ashamed to admit that I began holiday preparations with just minutes to go, but the truth is this is my favorite part of the holidays.

When I do let it leak that I’m just starting my shopping there is always some very superior person happy to share that she was all done in July. Well goody, goody, but what fun is that? Nor need you tell me about those gifts you bought on sale last February. You saved how much money doing that? Well goody for you, but saving money is not the spirit of the season.

No, I did not procrastinate. I well know the advice about how to make Christmas shopping easier. But there are some things that don’t get better just by being easier. I’ve read many of those How to Get Organized books, but I’ve also lived through enough tragedy to know that organizing one’s life is an illusion. I grant you that there may be a moment this week when I will envy those who had their gifts wrapped in July. But that’s kind of like having a good report from the dentist isn’t it? All very wholesome but where’s the fun?

And don’t even get me started on the people who buy their gifts online. How much holiday spirit does it take to point and click? Yes you meet the technical requirement of gift given, but where’s the spirit? Why not just hand everyone on your list a twenty-dollar bill, and say, “Hey, have a go at it”.

I also hate that suggestion that you should have a stash of generic gifts in your closet just in case someone surprises you with a gift and you were not prepared to reciprocate. Think how mean that is. Someone is just about to feel big and generous by surprising you with a gift and you cut them off at the knees with a retaliatory box of bath salts. It’s the cruelest one-upmanship.

Those of us who begin our shopping this week may be enjoying the real spirit of Christmas. We get to watch humanity test itself and see kindness and patience and grace enacted –or honored in the breach--in toy stores and next to the stack of 30% off cashmere turtlenecks.

We also know that the worst characters to run into at the mall now are the, “I was done in August” people who just learned they need one more thing and have to come out and play with the rest of us. They are usually the ones cutting in line or sighing heavily and making lots of eye contact wanting others to share their misery.

No, we who shop now are engaging in holiday ritual much closer to the original: It’s cold out , traffic is as slow as a lane of donkeys, and we get to watch the young family with a triple stroller searching the mall for a changing area. It makes you want to drop to your knees and pray.

Yes, shopping in July could make Christmas nice and tidy. But real life is anything but that. Consider the story of the Holy Family: There was no advance planning; Mary was days away from delivery when they went on a road trip, and she had to give birth in a barn. Not exactly tidy and neat.

The crux of that first Christmas story is that sometimes in the midst of mess and confusion and fear, angels show up and miracles happen.
But in order to experience that you have to be willing to join the fray and put yourself where humans happen to be. Relationships with people are like casinos: You must be present to win.

So this week I’ll be where humanity is. I’m heading out to the mall, bundled up, grinning and bracing myself for encounters with my fellow man. I’ll be trekking in from the outerloop of the parking lot, looking for a few gifts and the real spirit of Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Today is the darkest day and the beginning of the light. Pray for peace.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14 1934 Ebby and Bill

A special day in the history of AA. On this day, December 14, in 1934, Ebby Thatcher took Bill Wilson through steps 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. In the Oxford Group taking all of these steps could happen in an evening. The inventory, the confession, the examination, the asking and the list. Then sent out to make restitution—later amends. Ebby as sponsor, passing it on. Bill willing. From this day we get a Bill W. committed to sobriety. From a cold flat in Brooklyn to the rest of the world. Thank you Ebby.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

--Karl Barth, Swiss Theologian

Sunday, December 06, 2009

St. Nicholas Day

December 6th. St Nicholas Day. Later we borrow him to invent Santa. But girls this is the man for our holidays. Shoes. Shoes. Old Saint Nick is about shoes. Put out your shoes to get coal or candy. Gifts must be small enough for a shoe. That’s recession gifting and perfect this year. But also this year in honor of St. Nick --and in honor of the amazing sales and double coupons at Macys—go out and buy some wonderful new shoes.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Office Holiday Party

We are entering the time of year that makes seasoned managers cringe and human resource directors want to leave town. Despite fine words to the contrary, there is little Peace on Earth at the office around this time because we are getting ready for the office Christmas, oops, I mean “holiday” party.

Yes, we’ve learned to choke on the word Christmas and insist that the December party where we dress in sparkles, bring wrapped gifts, and drink eggnog standing next to an evergreen tree is just a winter event. But language games are the least of it when management has to plan the annual—“no one will be happy no matter what we do”--office holiday party.

This time of year career gurus give us the regular reminders: you must attend, you should not drink, don’t dress like a stripper and do make small talk with many people. The warnings should certainly be heeded. The annual holiday party is ground zero for what is known in Human Resources as the CLM, or Career Limiting Move. CLM’s include Xeroxing body parts, getting tanked with co-workers and making jokes about the boss to his/her spouse. But love them --or leave them early-- the office holiday party is a ritual of the workplace.

The list of issues is long: Do we go out on the town or stay in the building? Is the event during work or after hours? Will there be dancing? Music? And biggest bugaboo: booze or no booze? The tension produced along the way inevitably ends up in an annual review or with someone not forgiving someone else for months.

Divisiveness is in the details. One of the words tossed around liberally in the weeks leading up to the party is “they” as in they don’t have kids, they don’t like to drink, they drink too much, or they don’t have to pay a baby-sitter. Preferences also break down by personality type: Extroverts love the parties; Introverts want to die.

Some offices give money to charity instead but then end up bringing in a deli tray on December 22nd because it doesn’t feel right not to do something. I think it hits us that if we don’t have some kind of party, then we’re admitting that this is work and not really our family or our best friends. It’s one of the passive deceptions we engage in to smooth life along.

So what’s at the heart of this holiday ritual? Well, for starters we have strong cultural memories and it’s dark this time of year and we are longing for light. Workplaces have their own kind of darkness so it’s human to want to brighten that up too.

But there’s more. The office party is really a throwback. Yes, that sushi with sparkles affair in the boardroom is a remnant from the Ebenezer Scrooge days. It’s a flashback to the days when Big Daddy Corporation rewarded its Childlike Workers with the decent meal and glass of bubbly that they could not provide for themselves. The company party was also a time to reset any drifting notions of who owned the means of production.

I remember that kind of event. At the box factory where my Dad worked the assembly line was shut down once a year: the Saturday before Christmas. Hot dogs were served from the corrugator and Santa arrived on a forklift. There were no Bring Your Kids to Work days back then, so the Christmas Party was how you saw where Dad went every day. It was understood that that place and those people held the key to our survival.

Today, in our workplaces, we play out that past. And despite all the tension it takes to get there, we’ll toast our teams this week with hopes for prosperity and peace at work.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Little Match Girl

I have had a “Little Match Girl” feeling for a long, long time. An alcoholic family, fear of not being loved, and social class issues swirled together with my own addictions and fears led to a bad case of always feeling on the outside looking in and way too much comparing my insides to other people’s outsides.

The rooms of AA are a great corrective. I get to hear about the insides of people and I get to see the disconnect between insides and outsides.

Yesterday I was telling folks in my home group about my current fears and how intimidated I am by someone at work and they all gave me that long look and said, “But you look so together, so competent and never scared.”

Outside looking in. Appearances are not reality.

But I was telling another friend about my ultimate fear and the way one scary thought can race down the hill taking me all the way to homelessness in three seconds. “It’s the bag lady thing” I told her. Someone doesn’t like me and in seconds my head convinces me that I’ll be a bag lady. Well, she said, A bag lady is just the little match girl, but grown up. Huh.