The Posts of Christmas Past

Christmas cardsWhen I moved away to attend university, I started sending Christmas cards back home on the first day of December every year.   It was a great way to keep in touch and I loved opening the mailbox in the weeks leading up to the holidays to see the beautiful cards I got in return.

I would start writing the dozen or so cards in the last full week of November so that I could have them ready to mail when the calendar turned the page.  My cousin told me one year that she always felt that Christmas season had started in earnest when she received my card in the mail.

Years later, the dozen cards grew to more than 50, and I started writing them earlier and earlier so that they could be mailed on December 1.  Not content just to sign my name, I would take 10 minutes or more to write out something personal and meaningful to each person, and pretty soon I was starting the holiday tradition before the end of October, just to get them done in time.

This year, for the first time in, like, ever, I decided not to send any Christmas cards.  There were too many other demands on my time, and December 1 rolled around before I could say “Trick or Treat.”  It felt odd to let go of the tradition, and a bit sad to see my mailbox empty of any greetings in return.

Sometimes, we adopt a tradition because it holds special meaning for us, or because it keeps us close to something, but we don’t step back once in a while to see if the tradition still serves its purpose.  My Christmas card habit was putting pressure on me at a time when I had other priorities, but letting go of the task filled me with angst.  Then it hit me:  it wasn’t the Christmas cards themselves that I loved, but the fact that it allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends in a personal and meaningful way.  So why not re-define the tradition?

When you find yourself holding onto a routine that has outlived its purpose, ask yourself:

  1. What was the reason you took on this tradition in the first place?  Whether it’s a habit you adopted yourself or whether you’ve taken on a family custom, there is a motive behind it.
  2. Does the tradition bring you joy?  I love writing and so, for many years, writing the cards was a fun and relaxing activity, but recently had made me feel pressured.  Traditions should connect us to our past but not bind us in obligation.
  3. Is there a different way of fulfilling the purpose?  Why do I have to send cards at Christmas? Why not in the new year, or to celebrate Spring, or for no reason at all other than to say, “I’m thinking of you”?  My purpose for sending cards was to stay in touch with my friends and family.  I’m not limited to doing that just once a year.

In the meantime,

“Dear family and friends,

I didn’t send you a Christmas card this year but know that I am thinking of you…and you may get a card from me in the new year!

Love,

Me”

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It’s a good month for a happy life

You know you're Greek kalo mina

On the first of this month, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, enjoying the funny cat videos, food photos and inspirational quotes posted by some of my friends, when it hit me:  all my Greek friends had posted “Kalo mina!”  Every one.

“Kalo mina” means “[Have a] good month!” and it is the Greek way of wishing their family, friends and strangers a good month ahead of them, their way of wishing you well.  In fact, Greeks are notorious well wishers and will wish you well for just about any occasion.

Aside from the usual “kalimera” (good day), “kalispera” (good evening) and “kalinihta” (good night), they find other ways and reasons* to wish you well:

It starts on New Year’s Day with “Kali hronia”, [have a] good year.  We’ve already mentioned “kalo mina”, but the start of the week is not to be outdone: every Monday, you’ll hear “Kali evdomada”, [have a] good week, while on Fridays, it’s “Kalo savatokiriako”, [have a] good weekend.

Just before the afternoon siesta, they wish you “kalo mesimeri”, [have a] good afternoon. A neighbour may see you returning from the grocery store and wish you “kalifagota”, good eating.  Before each meal, it’s “kali orexi”, bon appetit, and as soon as you finish, it’s “kali honepsi”, [have a] good digestion!  Digestion, even!

At the beginning of the summer, it’s “kalo kalokeri”, [have a] good summer, and when you get back from summer holidays, it’s “kalo himona”, [have a] good winter.  Even if it’s only the first day of September.

While the economic crisis has resulted in a drop in overall happiness for Greeks compared to the rest of the EU countries, there is something charming and quaint and, well, happy about all this well wishing.  It fills you with optimism that there is at least one thing each day to be happy about.  (And if it’s a Monday on the first of the month just before afternoon siesta, man oh man, so MUCH to be happy about!)

Many of us go around complaining or whining, about the weather, about our jobs, about our life in general.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we pretended to be Greek for a while and started wishing people well for any little thing instead?   Would it create a ripple effect, a wave of happiness that others would pay forward?  Let’s try this challenge for the next month:

1.  When you feel the urge to complain about something, replace it with a happy thought for whoever is closest to you.  As you can see from the examples above, you can pretty much find any excuse to wish someone well.

2.  Keep track of whether your well-wishing is putting you in a better frame of mind about life in general.

3.  Repeat step #1 for the next 11 months.  Have a happy life!

“Kali prospathia”, [have a] good try!

* Thanks to my sister for providing these examples.

From chicken to champ

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Remember that kid in school who was always the last one picked to be on a team in gym class? The one who would hear groans from the team that ended up with her and cheers from the team that did not?

Well, I’m that kid. In my family, sports were not emphasized and so I never learned the skills or had the confidence to catch a ball, throw a Frisbee or kick a goal. Gym class would fill me with dread whenever the phys ed teacher instructed captains to choose classmates for yet another game of softball or dodge ball or some ball that was like an alien object to me. (To paraphrase John Bingham, I’m not sure who invented dodge ball, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t the kid in the class who couldn’t play sports well.)  Seeing a football sailing in the air would cause a paralysis of limbs, even as my teammates would shout at me to raise my arms and CATCH. THAT. BALL!

My idea to get around this embarrassment was to make friends with the jocks, the athletes most likely to be chosen as captains of these teams. The strategy was that they would be more likely to choose me out of a sense of loyalty rather than let me languish in the land of the athletically unwanted. But competitiveness and the desire to win seemed to beat out friendship every time back then. That’s OK. I didn’t take it personally.

I couldn’t wait to graduate high school so that I would never have to subject myself to the embarrassment of being picked last for a team or, worse, not being picked at all.

In one episode of The Simpsons, Bart tries to teach Santa’s Little Helper how to fetch and catch and do things that come naturally to other dogs and, in one scene, Santa’s Little Helper gets hit in the eyes with a Frisbee, garnering groans and great disappointment from the little boy who just wants to play. It’s like the writers witnessed my childhood and wrote my humiliation into a scene. I can relate to Santa’s Little Helper. I am Santa’s Little Helper.

Or, should I say, I was Santa’s Little Helper.

In university, a friend forced me outside for a quick lesson on how to catch and throw a baseball.  Within an hour, I was, well, if not great at it, at least able to hold my own during an intramural game later that afternoon.  A few years later, I was introduced to indoor rock climbing by another friend.  Scrambling up those walls made me feel strong and powerful in ways I’d never experienced in high school.  A casual invitation to play badminton one afternoon led to 4 years of league play.  Not long after that, I started running, working my way up to distances that took me through dozens of 10K races and 3 half marathons.  Suddenly, I was athletic.  Suddenly, I was an athlete.  Who knew?!  If only my classmates could see me now!

In thinking back to my earlier, uncoordinated years, I realized I’ve learned some important lessons:

1.  Athleticism, like artistic abilities, comes in many forms.  I can’t catch a ball like Calvin Johnson but I can run and jump and climb and skip and dance and turn cartwheels and swing a racket.  All of that counts.  I just had to find the right sort of athleticism that suited me.

2. The only person who set limits on my ability was me.  My friends all believed I could do it and didn’t give up on me as I tried again and again to get it right.  They were patient and willing to take their time with me.  If I focused on the fun of it, I could usually do it, at least in a way that didn’t embarrass anyone too much.

3.  I have great friends!  Throughout the years, even as I believed I couldn’t, they knew I could.  If your friends are not encouraging your heart, it’s time to find new friends.

So after years of avoiding any sport in order to avoid embarrassment, I now can’t wait to get out there and try new things.  In fact, the sun is shining and my runners are calling my name; time to go for a run.

 

Table for One

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I travel a lot.  I mean a lot — sometimes as often as once or twice a week.  My father was a merchant marine, for years travelling to various parts and ports of the world, and some of his wanderlust filtered down to me.  As a kid, I bussed tables at a restaurant to save money, not for a car at 16 but for a plane ticket to a far away locale in Europe or Australia.  As an adult, one of the considerations for which job I will take includes the potential to travel to some of my favourite places.

As much as I love travelling, and as antsy as I get when I am home for too long between trips, there is one major downside to it all:  I often eat alone.

People exclaim when they find out:  “You eat in restaurants by yourself?!?!!  You are so brave!”  But it’s not really bravery that drives me to eat alone in restaurants; it is the soul-crushing thought of eating alone in a hotel room that spurs me out into the public.  Room service is meant for lovers having a tete-a-tete who can’t bear to leave the hotel; it is not meant for the solo traveler to be holed up alone, with only the TV for companionship.

So, I often eat alone. In restaurants.  In public.

I hate eating alone.  There.  I admit it.

Man (and woman) was not meant to eat alone.  Eating is a social act, a way to bind friends, family and community together.  Food is not just for sustenance and survival but serves to build community and bond relationships.  The word “companion” derives from the Latin words for “with” and “bread” — in other words, companions are those with whom we eat bread.

Every week, a fellow in Paris hosts Sunday dinner at his place for the first 50 or 60 people who call or email him, with the goal of encouraging people from all parts of the world to meet, to talk, to break bread and to become friends.  He has been doing this for almost 30 years, for free.  Here is a man who understands of the concept of “companion” and opens his home to anyone who would like to come, in an effort to build community among strangers.

Some restaurants offer communal tables where single patrons can sit together for companionship and conversation, reducing the awkwardness that solo diners often feel when sitting conspicuously at a table for one.

There are times when a person might crave or relish the thought of eating alone: when trying to get away from the noise and pressures of too many people at home or the office; when time is needed for introspection.  But if anyone tells you they enjoy eating alone in restaurants, especially on a regular basis, well….don’t believe them.  Trust me. Solitude is often aligned with spending time with nature or meditating, not for eating out alone in public.

Eating with others changes the feeling from “me” to “we”.  So here are some suggestions for those of us who want to establish connections and community with others rather than bury our faces in our books and our Blackberries:

1. Use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to find friends and acquaintances in places you’re travelling to, and invite them to join you for dinner.

2. Research restaurants with communal tables and venture beyond your comfort zone to talk to strangers.  Who knows — you may make a new friend.

3. Strike up a conversation with others sitting at tables around you or, if that feels awkward, with your server and the restaurant’s chef.

As for me, next time I’m in Paris, I’m having dinner at Jim’s place.

Invisible

Invisible woman

I recently ran into a woman I’d worked with over 10 years ago.  We had worked together in a 50-person office for almost 2 years…and she had no recollection of me.  While that in itself is not surprising — it had been several years, after all — I realized during our conversation that she didn’t remember me because, at the time I worked with her, I was in an entry-level role in my company and she was a manager.  Even though I interacted with her every single day for almost two years, I had been invisible.

That led me to think about all the people who pass through our lives invisibly day after day:  the mailroom assistants; janitors; coffee baristas.

People yearn for connection and to feel significant in some way.  We want to feel that we matter to others.  People who have deeper connections with others enjoy better health and well-being.   The need to belong is a basic human need, and what better way to belong than to be known by those around you?   Our propensity to treat people as invisible as we go through our day means that we may miss those moments of belonging and deep connection.   A happy life is made up of small moments of joy.  Who knows what joy we miss out on by not making eye contact with the people around us, by not bothering to learn the names of people who serve us, by rendering people invisible.

What can we do to establish connections with those around us?

  • Make a point of noticing others.  Have you ever eaten in a restaurant and realized your water glass had been re-filled, but you had no recollection of it?  Next time, turn your head and look at the waiter who is pouring your drink; thank him for his service to you.  Make note of his name.

 

  • Put the smartphone away, for just a moment, and be present.  Too often, we have our eyes on our phones, reading texts, emails, messages from friends who are not with us, while ignoring the people standing right beside us.  We do it while standing in line at the grocery store, while ordering a coffee, or even while having dinner with friends.  Put the phone away, and pay attention to those around you.  Be present.

 

  • Learn the names of those who come into contact with regularly.  The mailroom assistant, the lady who walks her dog by your house each morning, the drycleaner.  Each person can add to your daily moments of joy and help you feel more connected to others.

Not only will making connections help to strengthen your own life and improve your health, but it will prevent others from being and feeling invisible so that, 10 years from now, when you run into someone who says, “Remember me?”, you can say with joyful certainty, “Why of course I do!  You haven’t changed a bit.”

By the way, the mailroom assistant in our office is named Leanne.