Back in the 1980s, before working as a full time watercolor artist ate up every ounce of my creative time and energy, I made our annual Christmas cards. I endeavored to make every card clever and quirky, especially after friends told me about how much they anticipated the yearly Sassaman card.
One year, the pressure got to me. I photocopied Edvard Munch's haunting painting "The Scream" and apologetically typed that I was too busy to make cards that year. Candidly, "The Scream" makes for a poor holiday card. I tried to soften the blow with foil stars on the eyeballs, but it was still pretty horrifying. Nonetheless, that non-card card was one of my favorites.
Over the decades, I've shed a lot of seasonal "shoulds." No more cards, for example. Or cookies. No wreath on the door. Forget the Santa Claus collection. Fewer and less grand presents. I like to give and receive presents, but a) out of control consumerism is wrecking the planet, so that's a poor way to celebrate peace and love, and b) research has shown that we get a much bigger bang for our happiness buck by buying experiences rather than things. My family and I are happy to honor that research with Christmas in a beach house.
Still, I'm feeling pressure! Once again, the pressure is self-created, stemming from my drive to create. In these tumultuous times, my brain is on fire. There is so much I want to write. A backlog is accumulating in my grey matter.
For example, I really wanted to write a blog about the importance of receiving. I was going to question, when there's so much emphasis on generosity as key to our personal happiness, don't we need folks to receive all those gifts? I would have written that receiving is also giving. I would have suggested reviewing what has been given to you recently -- compliments, wisdom, household help, meals, hugs, cards, invitations, hosts -- and urged you to be gracious, to smile and say thank you most of the time. I would have explained why "no" sometimes makes common and moral sense, referring to Sonja Lyubomirsky's precautions in The How of Happiness chapter on kindness.
I'm sure it would have been sublime and inspiring. Sigh. I just don't have time to write it.
One reason I am out of time is that I spent two days cleaning. Tuesday night, I hosted the 10th annual "Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange." I live on a dirt road, and we heat with a wood stove. Believe me, I had to clean.
As the cleaning devoured my writing time, I began to feel anxious and resentful. I knew I'd appreciate a clean house and enjoy the holiday gathering, but without the party, I could have been writing. Instead, I had lists of things to do -- including writing, which never got crossed off.
Though to-do lists get a bad name, to a certain extent, they bring me comfort. I love crossing items off; it provides a sense of achievement. I even add items after the fact just so I can cross them off, ideally, with a thick dark marker. Martin Seligman's P.E.R.M.A. research is fun to consider once again, since the "A" stands for accomplishment. Of course I like crossing off completed tasks. It's science!
Still, on my hands and knees washing the far corners of the kitchen floor, I stewed over what I was not accomplishing. Later, on my hands and knees scrubbing the living room carpet, I managed to stop perseverating over what I haven't accomplished and focus instead on appreciate what an awesome year of accomplishments and adventures I've had. You may be familiar with this Mark Twain quote, or others like it: "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough." This seems just as applicable to what we do. If we look only at what we haven't done, we will never, ever be satisfied.
Which brings me to hedonic adaptation. Humans are amazingly adaptable. Good fortune, misfortune -- whatever hits us, we adapt. In many ways, this is a wonderful healing trait, as it enables us to find our footing and smiles once again when life has slammed us into a wall. The flipside is also the downside: what once excited us, what once brought us pleasure, over time becomes ordinary -- which leaves us pursuing new excitement and pleasure elsewhere, often at great expense.
However, with an awareness of this process -- that is, with mindfulness -- we can take steps to maximize our pleasure and minimize the hedonic greying of what brings us joy. Taking time to savor what I've already done lets me reclaim some excitement from the hedonic dustbin.
Yesterday I realized that my relationship with the Yankee Swap had also fallen victim to hedonic adaptation. When my friend Nel and I started this party 10 years ago, I was thrilled to have found a place in the Maple Corner calendar of annual traditional events -- right up there with Heidi and Lewis's Martin Luther King Day commemoration, Nancy and Artie's Mardis Gras, and Chris's Fourth of July blow out. All our parties are vital to building community, the kind of community we need when the not-fun times come along.
From the first, the Yankee Swap was a huge success -- crowded, funny, and even environmental sound. Everyone brought a wrapped present that was something she already owned -- no new shopping allowed. Redistributing those presents is where the fun comes in.
Fortunately, I remembered the excitement I used to feel hosting this great event. To reclaim some of that joy, I turned to gratitude. Yay gratitude! It so often can pull us out of an unnecessary slump. Coming from a stance of gratitude, it was easy to appreciate how incredibly blessed I am to contribute to my fun and supportive community by hosting this party, together with my new co-host Roni. Plus my kitchen floor hasn't been this clean in years.
Tuesday night's party was the biggest one yet. It was an evening filled with special moments, like welcoming brand new neighbors to the sisterhood of Maple Corner women; the dancing penguin Christmas doo-dad that made me laugh to the point of tears; an unexpectedly funny exchange about dyeing hair; a wrapped present that looked like a Dr. Seuss book; and a poignant moment, when one woman's integrity demanded she "steal" back a present which had broken, a present which she had anonymously given in the first place. Her generosity in reclaiming the broken gift resulted in a flood of presents to her at the end.
I am deeply grateful to provide the physical and emotional space for these magical happenings.
Now I can cross "write Christmas blog" off the list! Awesome! Happy holidays, everyone!