Christmas 2016 – The Limited Edition

“Last year I purchased more than 40 evergreen wreaths for the windows of the house…and affixed wonderful shooting stars, made from hundreds of little white lights to the roofs and sides of the buildings…Indoors, I go a bit more crazy – a tree or two or three in every room…one room might be decorated for a woodland scene, another for our furry friends and another just for the birds.  I pull down the best table coverings from the attic and place them on tables, then add decorations on every flat surface…no opportunity is spared to embellish and get into the spirit.”  (Martha Stewart)

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Me after reading the above article!

So, funny story…I received an email this week and the sender said something to the effect of, “I can only imagine how beautiful your house looks with Christmas decorations.”  She was most likely thinking that since I am in the business of interior decorating, my house would in fact be decorated.  Here’s the funny (kind of) part: I don’t have a single Christmas decoration up. No lights on the outside, no garland on the railing, no stockings, not even a tree.  It’s quite embarrassing actually.  I wish that I, like Martha Stewart had 40 evergreen wreaths for each window of the house,  a tree or two or three in different rooms. I wish that the smell of sugar cookies was wafting through my perfectly cleaned house, with Christmas carols reverberating in the background.  But this is the thing: it’s my husband’s first Christmas of really being at home in over eight years, after a long stint in the oil field.  We are still tired, we are still recovering, and we are enjoying laying around on the the couch by the fire with our kids at night.  In the past, this would have been my downfall.  I would first start comparing myself to my neighbors, my friends, even Martha Stewart (sigh).  I would start berating myself and asking what’s wrong with me and why can’t I keep up with everyone else.  But what I have painfully, yet thankfully come to learn and accept is this…I have limitations.

This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, as I have always believed that if I just worked a little harder, I would be able to do everything.  But my body literally revolted and I have since had to learn to not only monitor my actions, but my energy level as well.  We all have limitations. For some people it is age or their health.  Others may be learning how to survive as a single parent, a new parent, or a caregiver to aging parents or children with special needs.  The problem, however, is that we live as though limitations do not exist.  We run and push and move through life until we drop from exhaustion, only to get up and start all over again. We refuse to rest until something outside of ourselves forces us to finally stop and take inventory of how we are choosing to live our lives.

There are two faulty ways of dealing with this issue in my opinion.  We either ignore our limitations, or we become them.  When my son first started having behavioral problems, I tried as hard as I could to ignore the difficulties and function like a normal family, often running myself into the ground.  When I finally realized that was not working, I became the grieving mom of an autistic child, floundering in my sorrow and despair.  I got lost and it became my identity.  It seems rather, that perhaps the best option is to simply and humbly accept our limitations as reality.

What I am not suggesting is that we robotically accept these limitations and mechanically plow through life .  Very often in order to accept our limitations, we need to first grieve them.  I just watched this beautiful video on Parkinson’s patients who are losing their ability to walk properly.  This is their reality that as of yet, cannot be changed.  But as an act of self-love and respect, their loss of freedom and independence must be mourned, almost as if to pay homage to a life well lived thus far.  If we can grieve and accept our limitations, I believe that we can eventually learn to celebrate them.  These Parkinson’s patients are finding joy and hope in a difficult situation. They are not allowing their limitations to define them, nor are they wallowing in self-pity.

Now for anyone that is overly concerned about my non-existent Christmas decorations, rest assured, I have no intention of actually having a tree-less Christmas.  It may however be a very simply decorated one.  We might take the kids skiing instead of wearing ourselves out shopping.  We might enjoy pizza more often than turkey and homemade sugar cookies.  But I’m okay with that.  We will be well rested and happy and reveling in the delight of having my husband home this year.  For me, this will be success.

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Autism, Judgment, and Love

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“Levitating” with a shovel implanted in the ground

I am the mother of an 11-year-old boy with a diagnosis of autism and a love for magic, levitating, yo-yo’s and recreating things he’s seen on YouTube.  He makes me laugh and cry harder than any of my other children.  Over the years I have grown pretty thick skin.  I rarely notice the stares if he loses it in public.  I am mostly used to the judgment.  I have been told by a stranger at Costco that I should have left him at home when he pushed his sister.  He has been nudged by the boot of an unknown man and told to “mind his mother” when he was pitching a fit on the floor.  When I locked him out of my car in the parking lot of a mall because he was hitting me, the woman in the car facing mine took off her sunglasses to glare and shake her head at me (I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear).  To be certain, I am not impervious to these occurrences, but they have become a part of life to some degree; my new normal if you will.

But what I cannot handle, what absolutely dissolves my resolve and shakes me to the core is when someone shows me kindness.  Heaven help us all if a stranger stops and asks if I’m alright or if I need help, or even worse, tells me I’m doing a wonderful job as a mother.  I might actually drop and shed every last tear in my body.  I can be strong and keep a stiff upper lip.  But look at me with concern on a bad day and ask how I’m doing, and you might literally witness my complete and utter undoing.

There are many things in life that I do not know.  But the one thing I do know is this: impulsive judgment without understanding gives rise to anger and bitterness.  It builds walls and leads to retreat or retaliation.  Love however, can undo and rebuild in one swift movement.  It can pluck you out of your small world and drop you into the foreign land of another’s struggles.  In a world confused by what color lives matter,  who can use what restroom, and which politician will cause the end of the world, if we do not respond with love, we will leave only emotional casualties behind.

Consequently, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of unfair judgment, we are left with a choice. We can wallow in the pain, playing the part of a victim.  Or we can choose to release ourselves, and with gratitude, turn our focus to the goodness surrounding us.  We will see what we choose to see.  Even though I have, at times, been enraged by people’s cruelty, it cannot compare with the love that has humbled me over and over again.  I have seen my son bite his teacher and draw blood, and then watched them walk hand and hand into school.  Friends and family have searched for and then cooked meals that are free of the fifty billion allergens we avoid, just to give me a night off of cooking, or to make sure that my son has a special treat at family dinners.  Teachers at his school have given up their personal time so that my husband and I could get away for our anniversary.  I have received phone calls from school because one of my other children had unbeknownst to me, taken the needs of a physically disabled student upon himself, and was carrying the child’s backpack to class every day.  My dad regularly drives an hour each way to take my son to a movie so that I might enjoy a quiet morning in church alone. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have been on the receiving end of the unconditional love of my son.  No matter how many times I lose it, or become irritable with him, or feel like I’m going insane, he tells me every night at bedtime without fail, “Good night, I love you.  You’re special to me.  I think about you in my heart.  I think about you in my peace.”  I don’t really even know what it means, but it’s beautiful.  Some nights, I brush over it, because I’m just so excited for him to go to bed.  But when I stop and think about it, I can’t really think of anything nicer that anyone has ever said to me.  And once again, I am undone.  Love has overcome the anger and frustration of the day and released me one more time from the snare of judgment (me toward myself this time).  I settle in for the night and fall asleep with the words of Mother Teresa in my heart, “Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.”

 

Mundane Motherhood

I remember I broke down in tears after I gave birth naturally to my first child.  I had worked so hard and had been so strong that the tears of relief literally came rolling down my face.  Today, I look at my boys. We are well into teenage years and even though the hardest years might yet remain, I could almost cry in relief because those early years were just. so. much.  To all of you moms with young kids and babies… now that I’m on the other side and have regained (some) sense of sanity, know that you are amazing. You pick up the same toys day in and day out. You hold the hand of a new walker and let them go up and down the stairs fifty billion times. You listen to the same incessant chatter and even though you feel like you might lose your mind, you smile and encourage the novice talker.  You sit and endlessly keep a drawer from shutting on their little fingers just so they can learn how to open and close.  You have the strength to get through the mundane, the love and loyalty of a mother bear, and the patience of a saint. The bad thing is, you don’t feel like it. You end so many days feeling like a failure, like you did nothing worthwhile, like nothing got accomplished.  All I can say after being a stay at home mom for fifteen years so far, is that everything will one day be worth it. You’ll see a picture of your teenage boys sleeping in a truck after a long hunting weekend and every little mundane task, and every never ending day will be so, so worth it.  Give yourself room to acknowledge that you have a very. hard. job.  Respect yourself enough to take the time you need to regather, and love yourself enough to be kind.  The world can be cruel enough without your own self-condemnation.  I know that everyone says this, but you will blink and they will literally be grown.  But contrary to what others may say, I don’t find it sad or remorseful.  I find it beautiful.  I love seeing my kids grow into their own person.  I love having real, tough conversations with them.  I love seeing their passions and even their pains.  It all reminds me that as a mom, I have been allowed to co-create another life, another real, live, struggling person.  It is humbling beyond belief.  I know that I still have a very long way to go.  But for tonight, I can fall asleep believing in my heart that every seemingly pointless moment was all beyond worth it.

Walden Pond

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Standing on the edge of Thoreau’s Walden Pond

“I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another…I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

-Henry David Thoreau-

Reading Color

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Today I met the most amazing man.  He is an older gentleman from Greece and he writes (draws) icons for Orthodox churches. He was sweet and funny but what I found fascinating was his ability to see color.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit obsessed with color. I love the undertones, the way they change from wall to wall, from day to night. I love colors that look blue and gray and green all at once, to where you almost don’t know what color you’re looking at.  I would get a Ph.D. in color if there was such a thing!  This is very different than my husband, who when asked which paint swatch he likes best, responds with a shrug and says that they all look the same (bless his heart, as they say in the South).  But I digress…back to the iconographer. What amazed me about this man is that he not only can read color, he  knows how to MAKE it!  He can look at a color and know how much black and white and red and yellow and blue would be required to CREATE any color!  He knows what to add if it’s too dark or how much to add if it’s too light and what colors enhance the richness of others.  This might be silly but it honestly mesmerized me.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.  What talent and skill!

soulAnd so I have come to this thought tonight…what if we could look at people the way that this artist looks at color?  What if we could have insight into the creation of their personhood, how they became who they are…their ups and downs, sorrows and joys, the moments that have either broken or resurrected them, what they currently long for?  What if we could discern exactly what “color” to add to enhance other’s lives and beautify their existence?  How much more patient and compassionate would we all become?  What if we could learn to look at OURSELVES this way?!  What if today, instead of seeing my irritability and the dishes and the messes and everything that feels like a failure, what if I could look at myself like a color, complex with constantly changing undertones, drastically different in the morning light, but beautiful nonetheless.

But alas, my eye is not quite as developed as this skilled artisan.  I still see only in tones and shadows.  I do not look deep enough or close enough.  The late author Jonathan Swift writes that, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Oh, that I might have the eyes to see that which remains hidden in every person, and the knowledge of what to add so that fullness of color might be achieved.   Perhaps over the course of my life, I will hone my skill and attain proficiency.  In the meantime, I will remain restlessly content to aspire to those who have inspired.

The Lost Art of Sitting

 

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Last night, my 11-year-old niece told me about a birthday party she had gone to.  Their morning activities included waking up to a morning smoothie bar and a hired yoga instructor.  Am I the only one who happens to thinks this is INSANE?!   What happened to the birthday parties where you play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, eat some cake and call it a day?  Our American culture has become obsessed with productivity, efficiency, and one-upping last year’s Pinterest birthday party.  The dog days of summer have been replaced with a steady stream of camps, organized play groups, and a landslide of sporting events.  Stress related illnesses have reached an all time high.  What is happening to us?!

Now with five children, I could never convincingly claim that my life is anything but frantic, chaotic and constant.  But I can genuinely assert that as a direct rebellion against the busyness, I have intentionally reclaimed the lost art of sitting.  I have created a space for this sitting right by the fireplace with my favorite chair that will soon have an indelible imprint of my backside.  I have a small garden stool for a table used exclusively for my coffee.  And my kids know that when I am sitting there, I am very unlikely to jump up and do much of anything for them.  They are, in fact accustomed to me calling out for the nearest child to “give me 20!” (which in layman’s terms means a coffee reheat).  This time for me always involves a little reading, a little contemplating, and a lot of just staring out the window. It is my balking recoil against time, chaos and the never ending to-do list.

From an architectural standpoint, it is interesting to observe how even our homes exhibit our cultural priorities.  Backyard patios, as opposed to front porches, tend to be the focus of most outdoor living spaces.  Porches represent the concept of sitting, doing little to nothing, just being.  Whereas, patios tend to emphasize entertaining, playing, and doing. Interesting enough, these are the top five results that pop up when the word “sitting,” is googled: “Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes and premature death…Sitting is bad for your health…Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise…Is sitting a lethal activity…Sit less, live longer.”  Even alleged inspirational quotes about sitting carry a negative connotation. References are made to bench warmers, laziness, loneliness and passivity.  Sitting has gotten a bad rap.

Even so, I choose to sit.  I choose to sit and slow down time.  I choose to be unproductive for 5 minutes, an hour, a day so that I might be happy and rested and mentally clear.  I choose to not be constantly efficient so that I might have energy for my kids and husband.  And I choose the pin-the-tail-on the donkey birthday parties so that my children will not constantly expect bigger and better for the remainder of their lives.

 

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”