Monthly Archives: December 2015

Presents vs. Presence: What is the Best Gift on Your List?

DSC_0405“Together is the best place to be.” —Words painted on the wall at my family’s cabin

Hello friend,

I LOVE Christmas presents! I know that, at this age, I am supposed to be embarrassed to admit that, but it is so true. Even as my hair gets more gray every year, that is one part of being a kid that has never left me. I still get downright squirrely the moment I wake up on Christmas morning, eager to skip the breakfast formalities and get right to the gifts. It is all I can do to keep from shoving everyone—my wife, kids, siblings, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and my parents–down the stairs to their spots on the sofas and chairs so we can start distributing the mountains of gifts piled under and around the tree.

Christmas—and my giddiness about the presents—has always been this way at my house. I had a few friends growing up who got cool stuff at random times all through the year, and Christmas was no big deal to them. They got a few presents, just like any other week out shopping with their parents. Ho hum. We were NOT that family! My parents pinched pennies all year long—“Better ask for it for your birthday,and “Put it on your Christmas List were familiar refrainsbut they went all-out on those two special days. Tons of presents and a real effort to make it a special day. And it was!

My anticipation for Christmas was feverish. The day before was always a rollercoaster of emotions: a kind of ecstatic elation about its nearness mixed with the absolute torment of waiting. Like rabid dogs, my siblings and I would crawl through the piles around the tree and oh-so-carefully slide underneath it, squeezing and shaking each gift, guessing at the contents of each and, of course, making a tally of how many each kid was getting. Finally, in the evening, after hours of begging, we were allowed to open one present—ONE—always the one from my cousins. It was a momentary thrill, but hardly enough to assuage my wild urges to tear through the wrappings under the tree to see if my guesses were correct. I salivated over the thought of new toys. The frenzy in my mind made for a tough time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve, and from the moment I woke up on Christmas morning, I was like a maniac, just DYING to get to the presents.

The years have passed, and though the extremes of my torment and elation have been tamed a bit, I still get giddy in anticipation of diving into the presents. It is a unique delight to tear open that wrapping paper on Christmas morning to discover the new treats that will sparkle up my life in the coming year. I guess that is the one way that I am a classic American: I love more stuff! I often feel a bit guilty about how much I enjoy it. But, since the guilt hasn’t made the feeling go away, I have decided to claim it. I am a materialist. 

A funny thing has happened on the way to my middle adulthood, though. As much as I appreciate the spine-tingling anticipation and excitement for the presents, as the years pass by, I recognize more and more that what I mostly love is the time with my family. It is true that I have always loved it this way—indeed, I have never missed a Christmas at my childhood home with my family, even when I had to quit my job to be there—but only in recent years have I been so keenly aware of its value to me. It was always there, quietly wallpapering the scene of those Christmas Eve games and those wild Christmas morning gift-a-paloozas, but I couldn’t recognize it as such in my greedy haze. I feel it now, and I acknowledge and honor the feeling.

I guess I have come to the point where I can see that the real point of the holiday—or at least the thing I value the most (by far)—is the fellowship, the love for the people I am gathered with (and the ones in my heart) rather than all of the presents that seem to dominate the months of lead-up. Think about this, friend: we have a whole season of shopping and then a whole day of togetherness. I really wish that could be reversed.

I am so glad that I have come to this awareness, this realization, before it is too late. No one has died and left me wishing I had truly cherished the time we had. My family seems to be—knock on wood—in its prime. My parents and siblings are all healthy and enjoy spending time together. We look forward to our Christmas all year as that time to be together under one roof with no agenda. It is simply about being together. And it is the best.   I am beyond grateful for that.

What warms my heart even more, however, is that my kids love it just as much as I do. Their two favorite weeks of the year are the Christmas week with their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and then, of course, their week at the family lake cabin in the Summer, where the very same crew is assembled. All year long they talk about how they can’t wait to go back to both places. Not coincidentally, those are my two favorite weeks, too. Birds of a feather, we surely are. I am grateful for everything about our life together. The very best part, though, is that it is just that: TOGETHER.

I guess that is why my grown-up self loves Christmas so much. It is the chance to reclaim with my family of origin what I get with my own little gang everyday: togetherness. The fact that I get them both simultaneously—and that my little birds also appreciate them so much—well, that makes the whole deal simply perfect. That togetherness, that presence, is all the gift I need. It is, indeed, a merry, happy, and most grateful Christmas for me!

How about you? What do you value most about the holidays? Open up your journal and think about what makes you giddy and what warms your heart. How excited do the presents make you? How has that changed as you have aged? Do you make a big Wish List? Is there anything you are on pins and needles about this year, something you are really hoping for? Overall, what is the level of importance placed on the “gift” aspect of the holidays in your family? Would you prefer it be more or less important? What about the “togetherness” part? Is the fellowship with your loved ones a big part of your holiday gatherings? How much do you look forward to the time? Is this the one time of the year you gather with these people? Do you do it out of tradition, obligation, pure desire, or some mix of those? Which one is the strongest factor? Has the togetherness aspect become more or less important as you have aged? If you had 100 percentage points to divide between them to show the value you place on Togetherness vs. Gifts, how many points would each get? Are there other things that deserve points on your scale, such as religion or food? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes your holiday happiest? 

May your days be merry,


P.S. If this made you smile, cry, or wonder a little bit, feel free to share it with a friend who could use some of that today.  Namaste.

The Magical Power of Holiday Cards

DSC_1170“The history of your happiness is the history of your feeling connected.–Vironika Tugaleva 

Hello friend,

My favorite Facebook post of the whole week was the simplest one. It was my friend Veronica, who doesn’t post very often, and all it said was, “I LOVE getting Christmas cards! Don’t you!? Love the pics, love the notes, just love it! My heart lit up, and the biggest smile came across my face. All I could think was “YES! Absolutely yes! I am not the only one!” I have wondered if anyone else out there still felt the same blend of giddiness and peaceful nostalgia that I do with a holiday card in my hands at this special time of year. If they do, no one seems to mention it anymore. I don’t know how many people still send them, or if digital versions and regular social media posts have overtaken them in popularity. I think it was that sensation of my perhaps-solitary enjoyment of a dying tradition that made me react so strongly to Veronica’s simple but spectacularly positive post. I completely lit up at the thought. I have been so grateful ever since.

What is it about this little piece of mail? Why does it have this magical hold over me? And what is its place in the modern world? Is it just me and Veronica, or does this tradition have other loyal lovers who will keep it alive for future generations? I wonder…

One of my favorite hours of the year comes on a lazy morning at my childhood home on my annual Christmas visit. I grab the basket that my Mom keeps all of that year’s holiday cards in—dozens of them—and find a comfortable chair in a quiet corner to settle in for a while. Even as I love hearing what all of these old family and friends are doing these days, the very reading of it is a wonderful trip down memory lane. I think of the days of old and our time together as I grew from boy to man. It feels good to me in so many ways. I am a chronicler by nature, so I love to hear other people’s accounts of their own lives. And I delight in the thought that these old companions still find it in their hearts to share their journey with us each year. I understand that it may not take much more effort to stuff one more envelope and sign one more card, but it would be easier not to do it. So, I appreciate them sparing us a thought, even if this is the first correspondence since last year’s card.

I was taking a class several months ago, and somehow in his ramblings, the teacher landed momentarily on the topic of holiday cards. He declared that he cuts everyone off his list that he hasn’t spoken to somewhat regularly during the previous year, dismissing the idea of sharing his photos and family updates with people who are virtual strangers from lack of recent personal contact. I was floored! Cut people off just because you don’t talk to them? That would cut my list down to single digits! And those aren’t the people I really want the cards from anyway. I want them from the cousins and old family friends I spent my weekends and Summers with as a kid. I want them from my uncles and aunts who have nicknames for me and whose images fill my golden childhood memories. I want them from my high school buddies, who I still love like brothers but almost never speak to. The truth is, without an old tradition like the holiday card, all of these precious connections could be lost.

Sure, I understand that Facebook and other social media platforms make something that arrives through snail mail seem archaic and useless. After all, you can keep much more up-to-date simply by peeking at a friend’s page, if they are active on the site. Judging by their photos, comments, and shares, you can sometimes get a pretty good sense of what folks are up to and who they have become in the long years since you shared the good old days together. In the less than two years I have been on social media, I have been so pleased at how much better informed I am on the lives of my cousins and old friends and acquaintances, and I’ve been downright tickled at how some online relationships have popped up or flourished out of connections that had long since died out.

Still, there is something not entirely fulfilling about the digital relationship. Something impersonal. Distant. It’s almost as though the messages are cheapened because they are so easy to send, and it’s all done in public view. It’s a little superficial, even when it’s genuine.

And then there is the holiday card. Even though you know the letter and the photo collage are sent to all of their friends, they are also sent to you. Your loved one selected you for their list among all of the people in their life. They wrote your name on the envelope. They spent money to mail it to you. Maybe they even wrote an extra little note on your card. In any case, a real effort was made by someone you love to share themselves with you. You were chosen. That means something.

It’s a simple gesture, and it’s once a year, but there is a special power in the gesture. It gives me the warmest feelings knowing that people from a distant past are still carrying on and at least sparing a thought for me on occasion (enough to keep me on their list, anyway). I am well-aware of how deeply nostalgic I am, so sometimes I think it is only me who remembers fondly so many special characters from my youth. The holiday cards remind me that I am remembered, too.

Such a big part of the magic of the holiday season is gathering with your loved ones, many of whom we see only for this annual celebration. Holiday cards go hand-in-hand with that sentiment: it is a communion with loved ones that happens but once a year. It brings a special kind of joy to the season. Heck, even going out to the mailbox is fraught with excitement and anticipation each day at this time of the year. The MAILBOX! Perhaps that is an indication of how starved we are for connection and communion in this digital world, a world that has made the “old” types of communication—talking to each other and reaching out with a letter—awkward and uncomfortable for most of us. It takes something as archaic as a holiday card to get us to make the effort to reach out, as though we only dare to bridge that social gap when we have the excuse of tradition to make it acceptable. It is a fascinating social phenomenon.

I am so glad that many of us still hold on to that last vestige of the letter-writing age, enough at least to fill the basket at my Mom and Dad’s house and make a small pile on my countertop. It is what drives me to make the time every year to both make the photo collage and write the letter. As I write, I picture in my head all of the people on my list, the faces of friends and family members from a long and beautiful life. It warms my heart and reminds me of the one thing I am so lucky to be: connected.

How about you? How connected are you at this time of the year? Open your journal and explore the way the holidays remind you of your connectedness—or lack thereof—and how that gets expressed. Who do you gather with at this time of year? Is it always the same people? Do you choose this group because you want to or because it is expected of you? Who else would you like to join you for the holidays? If you could wipe the slate clean and choose exactly who would gather at your table, whom would you choose? What is it about the people at your ideal table that brings them there? Are they connected to each other, or are they all just individually special to you? How often do you communicate with these people currently? Do they all know how much they mean to you? What, if anything, keeps you from making that clear? Do you like getting holiday cards and letters? Whose are your favorites? Does a card in the mail mean more to you than an email, text, or Facebook message? Why do you think that is? Is technology on its way to making mailed holiday cards obsolete? Do you send holiday cards? Photo, letter, or both? If you are a sender, what is your motivation? Are you like me and have a desire to stay connected to loved ones from your past–even if it is just the once-a-year tradition–or do you do it more out of obligation? If you don’t send a card, why not? What would it take to get you to send something to more people? On a scale of one to ten, how connected are you to other people? Are you satisfied with that number? Would you be happier with a higher number? What can you do to change it to a number you would like better? The holiday season offers us a good excuse to reach out. A simple card can be the olive branch, the bridge to communion, or the reminder that your love is always there. Leave me a reply and let me know: Who will you connect with this year? 

Trade in your walls for bridges today,


P.S. If there someone in your life you need to reach out to, share this letter with them. Then let them know how much they mean to you. You will not regret it.

Mass Shootings in America: Prayers, Politics, & A Culture of Violence

DSC_0550“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” –President Obama following October 1 shooting in Roseburg, Oregon that left nine dead

Hello friend,

The violence in America kept up at its usual, breakneck pace this week. With everyone in the major cities on guard for a repeat of Paris-style massacres, we showed that terrorism can be homegrown, too, with the Planned Parenthood shooter early in the week. By the time we were at midweek, his headlines were stolen by the San Bernardino couple whose assault rifles destroyed even more lives, leaving the rest of us shaking our heads in sadness and disbelief. Meanwhile, the politicians split their efforts between pointing fingers at one another and offering tweets of prayers to the families of the deceased. Just another week in America.

It is difficult to avoid becoming numb to this seemingly daily violence in our country. In other weeks, I have completely kept my eyes off the news and kept my head buried in the sand. The continuous stream of stories about violence and negativity are very difficult for me to watch. They seem to hit me like punches to my heart, and after a few minutes of watching, I cannot bear it anymore. I am forced to bury my head in the sand again just so I can keep getting out of bed in the morning. I don’t let it in very often, but when I do, it pains me deeply.

At the start of this week’s action, I mostly kept my eyes turned away. I almost gave in to being absorbed by the Planned Parenthood shooting because I wanted to see how many people were willing to call it what it was: terrorism. I didn’t, though; I just wasn’t up for it. When the California massacre happened, though, I couldn’t resist. I knew it would break my heart, but I turned on CNN anyway. It was unbelievably sad. These things are always so very sad.

Of course, there was action on Facebook, too. One of my friends posted a photo of the front page of the Daily News, which read “God Isn’t Fixing This” and showing tweets from Republican leaders saying that they are praying for the victims and families. My friend wrote a passionate plea to go along with it, essentially calling out the politicians for not enacting any significant gun control laws that might help prevent or limit these mass killings. He exhorted them to stand up to the NRA, ban some things, close some loopholes, and just generally DO SOMETHING instead of sending out thoughts and prayers to victims.

In his post and in a couple of other articles that I read, a fascinating stat was cited. It was this: there have been 355 mass shootings—four or more victims—in America in the 336 days so far this year. Now, I cannot verify these numbers—one of my friends said that the FBI’s number is 21 mass shootings this year—but whatever the count is, I think we can all agree that it is way, way too many.

The other interesting Facebook post I saw—to provide an immediate counterpoint to the gun control posts—was a big picture of the actor Samuel L. Jackson with his quote: “I don’t think it’s about more gun control. I grew up in the South with guns everywhere, and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren’t taught the value of life. I don’t think this was a quote from this week, but it applied just the same.

Although I am way, way over to the “control” side of the gun control debate, I must say that Mr. Jackson has a point. Somehow we have arrived at this point where the default reaction to being disgruntled or depressed is violence, usually of the gun variety. We have a problem in America that other countries don’t seem to share. Our level of peacetime violence relative to the rest of the world—even in our movies—is off the charts. We need a seismic shift culturally and psychologically to get out of this place. But in the meantime, we need to figure out what to do—an action—to minimize the frequency of these events. We need to stop the bleeding.

I admit that I am oversensitive when it comes to violence. I think boxing and MMA are barbaric and should not be sports, and I could just as well enjoy watching an NFL flag football game or an NHL hockey game with no fighting or checking allowed. So yes, I am heavily biased. But really, can’t most people see that we have gone off the deep end? I can’t imagine I am the only one wondering why ordinary Americans are able to buy assault rifles and why we use all guns with such regularity. Am I?

I want stricter gun laws. Correction: I would like guns to be virtually eliminated from our society. Of course I know that is not going to happen any time soon. I also know full well that I am not any sort of expert on each state’s current gun laws or the history of the issue. I am just telling you what I want and what feels right to me, a guy who is very disturbed by violence of all sorts.

It just strikes me as completely odd that we all have access to guns. I don’t get it. Well, I don’t get why so many people want guns, either, but that doesn’t disturb me as much as how many people are allowed to own guns, especially things like assault rifles. Does anyone outside of the police force or military really need an assault rifle? I don’t understand why they are available. I wish they weren’t. Heck, I wish guns of any sort were not available to anyone without very strict safety certification, background checks, and proof of insurance. Even then, I would only be in favor of the kind my Dad showed me how to use for hunting when I was a kid—you know, where you can’t take more than two shots in succession before you have to stop and reload. If I could figure out a way for folks to prove they were only going to hunt animals with the gun, I would be in favor of that, too (Hey, it’s my fantasy, so let me run with it!). Finally, to get my process started, I would like the government to confiscate all of the other millions of guns that are currently in people’s homes across the country that don’t meet my demands.

I know this is all a pipedream, of course, but why can’t we at least take some baby steps in my direction? I can hear the politicians now: “Ever heard of the 2nd Amendment? You can’t just change the Constitution! I hate that argument. I find it weak, because it is a convenient way to avoid the issue and doesn’t address history and precedent. If we stuck with the Constitution the way it was originally written, my Black wife would count as 60% of a person when it comes to representation, and of course she couldn’t vote. Neither Black people nor women of any race were allowed to vote.

Sadly, the framers of that great document were neither all all-wise nor all-knowing. They lived in a different time with different realities. (They resented the British for trying to take their guns away at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and wanted it in writing that this wouldn’t happen again.) If they got slavery wrong and got women wrong, what makes us so sure they got guns right? Future generations wised up and amended those other failings, so what makes this one above question? I don’t get it.

I know we can’t fix the cultural norm of violence overnight. I know that there are going to be people who are depressed, disgruntled, or otherwise disturbed who will have violent urges. But I feel like the least we can do is to make it difficult for those people to act out those urges on other people, especially large groups of them. In the long run, sure, I hope we will make my fantasy laws into a reality. But for today, I just want us—the citizens and the politicians who represent us—to do something. I want baby steps rather than no steps at all. If we don’t, for each one of the mass killings that takes place on our watch, there is blood on all of our hands. I can’t take much more. I’ve grown weary from the washing.

How about you?   Where do you fit into the culture of violence in America? Open up your journal and explore the way it affects you and what you think we ought to do about it. Do you follow the news closely? What effect do the seemingly endless stories of violence have on you? Do you watch more news or less when one of these mass shootings occurs? Do they sadden or anger you, or are you numbed by the regularity of them? How violent are you personally? Do you get into fights? Are you in favor of spanking kids? What do you think spanking teaches? Do you own a gun? If so, what do you use it for? Have you ever been in a situation—not in war or police action—where a gun has protected you? Should our gun laws be more strict? What kinds of weapons should normal citizens have access to? Are you in favor of government confiscation of guns if new laws are enacted limiting access? What does your fantasy look like on this issue? Do you agree with me that we are all guilty of these mass shootings if we don’t begin to make changes to reduce them? Are tighter gun laws just a Band-Aid solution to the bigger problem of apathy toward human life? If so, is there still some value in enacting stronger legislation around gun control? Why have we done so little on this issue despite the obscene number of gun deaths in our country? Do we just not care? Leave me a reply and let me know: What part do you play in this violent movie? 

I wish you Peace,


P.S. If this letter helped you to think about this difficult issue more clearly, please share it with others who may need clarity as well. Thank you.