A Cougel Christmas on the Prairie.

I admit it. I love Christmas. Christmas is fun. Christmas is cozy. Christmas is everything it promised to be when I was a little girl who celebrated Hannukah.

christmas-Hanukkah

Hannukah is an eight night affair. This is because when the temple in Jerusalem was seized and later reclaimed, there was only enough olive oil for the menorah to burn for one day, and yet miraculously, it burned for eight. But when you’re a kid, you’re just psyched to get presents for eight days straight. And when you’re a Jewish kid, you’re psyched to have a holiday that gifts you rather than guilts you.

My family celebrated Hannukah by lighting candles every night and eating latkes (fried potatoes) with apple sauce. I am the middle of three girls, and now that I’m older, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to buy presents three times eight times. So instead, we got one “big” present. As opposed to my best friend who was the only girl in her family, where each gift successively trumped the next. I would wait in anticipation to hear about the roller-skates she received, the sequined miniskirt, the aquarium, and if she could drive, a pink convertible would have been gift number eight instead of a new piano.

“What did you get?” She would ask me, her brown ponytail swinging like that of the pony she received the year before.

I pulled the sleeves of my purple Gap shirt down over my wrists proudly and smiled, “This!” I said. (And a pair of socks you can’t see at the moment).

As a pre-teen, I may have felt short changed, but looking back, my parents’ lesson stuck. Holidays are not about extravagant gifts, nor should they be. The emphasis is on giving; giving your time, your attention, and your love to your family and others.

So now that I am celebrating my second Christmas, which spans only one day, gift giving is just a small part of it.

Last Christmas, my husband of just three months and I flew to Kansas, where his parents now live, for my first true Christmas. And it was everything I had imagined it to be. Christmas carols and the scent of cookies and cinnamon candles warmed the space around me. The tree stood near the fireplace, green and red presents hugging its base and spreading along the carpet, beckoning me. We said grace before dinner and told stories afterwards. Hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps warmed my insides. Love for my husband, for my new family, and for God, filled me with joy. (And I did not cut and paste any of this from a Hallmark card).

On the short drive to Church on Christmas Eve, I took in the idyllic scenery; the pretty homes, the snow covered lawns and twinkly facades, the orange lights emanating from curtained windows where families were nestled together in front of fireplaces. As we walked into Church, my husband took my hand as we took our seats, his parents greeting their friends with hugs and Merry Christmas’s. I noticed that the stage was decorated with streamers and balloons, like a child’s birthday party. A jolt of confusion struck me. Why were they having a kid’s birthday party in the evening? This seemed unusual.

It didn’t occur to me until half way through the service whose birthday it was.

Yeah, Baby Jesus.

No, Hannukah doesn’t prepare you for that.

But Little House on the Prairie reruns do. Somehow, I knew the songs. Onward Christian Soldiers. Noel. Greensleeves. My piano teacher, sweet old Mr. G who used to fall asleep during my lessons, had taught me all of these songs (unbeknownst to my mother). And now here I was on an actual prairie.

This Christmas day, we’re going to the Jewish prairie: Miami Beach. My parents are there with my sister and nieces. But first, my husband and I are going to go to Christmas Eve services in Manhattan, and exchange gifts. (I just may have ended up buying him eight of them, as if to make up for my childhood Hannukah, or at the very least, sprinkle some Hannukah in there.)

We don’t have a tree, and not only because there is no room for one in our small living room. The focus is not about secular symbols, it’s about the birth of Jesus (see above). Instead, we have candles, music, a menorah that we just finished lighting, and each other. As for next year, when our living room is bigger, and perhaps our family too, we can custom make our own Little House.

Happy Christakkah to you all, and lots and lots of love.

 

 

 

The Selfish Scale: When is self-care considered selfish?

My best friend and roommate from college came to New York to visit me this weekend. She and I have stayed in touch, and been there for each other’s milestones for…uh…22 years.

I usually spend my weekends retreating from people besides my husband unless I have family visits and events. Saturdays flow out like so: wake up whenever dog (not children) decide we should, NYT and coffee on the couch, brunch, followed by what we’ve dubbed “writing time” even if it doesn’t always produce actual words. This time is really my self-nurturing allotment and includes reading, thinking, jotting down ideas, and only occassionally actually working on a book project. When I skip this time, like some people who haven’t gone to the gym or a toddler who missed his nap, I feel off, my nerves ever so slightly frayed. My weekdays are filled with external facing energy, like most people, but because my main job is in sales, that outward thrust is directed towards people – getting to know them, and many times, befriending them.

I love people. I crave connection, and like many writers, I tend to excavate to get to the bottom of what makes a person tick. “You get in there,” a friend who’d only known me for a short while once said. This is true, even though I’ve spent my whole life insisting that I am an introvert, because I’m creative and when I was younger, moody and insistent on alone time at the most random moments. But in the last decade, particularly in the last 4 years as a sales representative who arranges client dinners, parties, and bottles of alcoholic beverages, these new friends and clients would look at me in shock.

You? An introvert? No way.

They’d be right, except that recently, I’ve found myself trying to reclaim that introverted self – or at the very least, honor her needs. What this looks like on the outside is less of me on the outside. Fewer parties, less small talk and more deep talk and connection with what my therapist calls the four people in my inner circle (and you know who you are). Reciprocal conversation that flows naturally and nourishes the heart and soul, rather than a “catch up” conversation which to me is akin to reporting; digging into an old balloon of information that’s already been satisfyingly popped. But this comes with a price, a sense of being punched when those who are not in that inner circle say, “Where have you been?” or in one particular (and humorous) moment, “Where have you been, asshole?”

Whenever I experience such friction, or find myself taking inventory and analyzing my relationships too much (or if you’re Jewish, find yourself feeling guilty all the time), I get angry with myself for allowing it to distract me, but I also know that there must be some opportunity – a lesson – in this turmoil, or at the very least, it’s a growing pains’ groan.

Reconnecting with a friend who knew you when you were young and unfettered, when you were your true-you before adulthood and marriage and before the shackles of expectations appear is like jumping into a cold plunge pool of the soul. As my girlfriend and I huddled together in our pajamas to resume the conversation we began the night before, I was transported back to our dorm room 22 years ago (only difference was an air mattress in a NYC living room). We discussed and analyzed everything — our jobs, our marriages, and our friendships and how we serve them, and came to the realization that our type of friendship is rare. The last time I saw her was at my wedding 14 months ago, which means that I saw her and hugged her, but didn’t really talk to her. And we haven’t spoken on the phone for more than a few brief minutes almost six months ago. She told me her mother, upon hearing this, asked if everything between us was okay? She found this infrequent contact to be an indication of a waning bond, but my friend told her – and I agreed – that it is quite the opposite.

“We are there for each other for the important stuff, and we both know that. It doesn’t matter if one of us hasn’t called or forgot a birthday.” (Although Facebook has saved me from fumbling the latter).

best-friends-md

Not to mention the old adage that as we change, our friendships and their dynamics change. They have to, if there is growth to be had and priorities to be realigned. As a single divorcee, I was always available for any outing, craving like minded women friends with the same agenda as me, and the added motivation that perhaps I might meet someone at a bar (which is ironically how I met my husband). Looking back, there is no longer a spotlight on those friendships, but rather its searchlight has since cast over a different group, and then finally, has come to rest here, at home.

For the dudes that might be reading this, I know you’re scratching your heads (if not rolling your eyes), wondering how it’s possible that us women can spend so much time not only talking, but worrying about our friendships. To that I’d say, we can’t help it, because that’s how we are built — to crave the understanding and unconditional support that friendship provides, and like most fulfilling relationships, that comes with an emotional tax. (And besides, be grateful. It takes some of the pressure off you).

So, extrovert or introvert? Does extroversion equate to friendliness and inclusion of others, and introversion to its absence? And can’t we be both?

Another girlfriend who I confide in daily helped answer this question, as I struggled with this dichotomy and how my actions affect those I care about: “Self love and self care is difficult when we are taught that we must put others first, and requires a complete relearning to accept that it’s okay not to, and that in fact, we must.” (Yeah, this one’s in my inner circle for a reason, can’t you tell?).

She reminded me of the airplane analogy: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your child.” Because we can’t take care of anyone else when we ourselves are not thriving.

Finding that balance is difficult, and requires routine maintenance…

…and perhaps an occasional loving reminder from a friend.