Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

Sixpence None the Richer

Katie
Katie

My 10 year old, Katie, has been working harder than usual around the house, looking for extra ways to earn money to buy Christmas gifts. Not sure you’d call it a hand-to-mouth existence, per se, but she earns and spends in equal proportions. As soon as she was paid for her work, she asked me to take her to the store so she could buy Christmas presents.

At the Target cash register, she counted out almost all the money in her purse to purchase a present for Ryan. Katie got home and asked for more chores.

On her second trip to the store, she had a handful of spare change left after getting Grandma a gift. The next day, I stumbled across a note Katie had written to herself to find ways to earn additional money.

When my parents arrived for Thanksgiving this week, Katie sat my father down and explained to him that this was his last chance to “donate” some money to her Christmas gift fund.

“If you give me more money, Grandpa, I can buy you a bigger gift,” Katie told him. Difficult to argue with that logic!

Katie’s conversation with my Dad reminded me of an analogy C.S. Lewis gave in his book, Mere Christianity:

“Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what that is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction. When a man has made these two discoveries God can really get to work. It is after this that real life begins. The man is awake now.”

It’s interesting to watch my kids’ behaviors and attitudes toward money. They haven’t had to endure backbreaking labor to earn their spending money. They’re not choosing between food to eat and Christmas gifts for others, so, in a way, there’s a certain easy generosity that grows out of their abundance. It’s akin (on a vastly different scale) to Bill Gates’ ability to donate hundreds of millions of dollars without sensing a loss.

If they are called to make sacrificial gifts, I hope they do so with the same generosity they display now.

Few of us realize, though, that we actually are the Bill Gates of the world: wealthy recipients of unending grace. How miserly of us to count others’ transgressions; how horrible to hoard our time and talents and treasures when they aren’t really ours in the first place. We would judge Bill harshly if he begrudgingly gave someone in need $1,000 in light of his billions.

The abundance of our Thanksgiving tables often makes us drowsy. But gratitude awakens us. Mercy moves us so that we are able to extend our tables to others; Offer a bigger gift of grace because of what we have received.

Top 10 Reasons a Heater-less House is a Good Thing

IMG_7035My home heater is not working, but my house is fairly well insulated. As temperatures outside dropped to 38, then 35, then 33 degrees at night, inside, the thermostat registered a balmy 51 degrees.

I called a technician who informed me he’d be happy to take a look at my furnace for an additional $100 above the regular service fee because it’s a weekend.

I am my father’s daughter. We do not buy things at full retail price, nor neglect to use coupons, or pay an extra $100 for mere warmth. So I piled some extra blankets on my bed and donned my sweatpants (and scarves and mittens), and I’m wearing my North Face until Monday. In the meantime, here are my TOP 10 REASONS A HEATER-LESS HOUSE IS A GOOD THING:

10. Perfect opportunity to host a Frosty-the-Snowman/Snowmen-at-Night themed party with a chillin’ atmosphere to match.

9. Winter temperatures mean that it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas not only in my heart, but in my home, too.

8. I don’t sweat as much doing the Jillian Michaels workout. I merely perspire now. (Then again, it’s hard to hold hand weights when I can’t feel my fingers.)

7. Dry heat isn’t great for my skin anyway, so I’m not only saving money on weekend technician fees, I’m saving myself the cost of expensive skin moisturizers!

6. I’m motivated to find my thermals and skiwear before the ski season really gets underway.

5. No need to take Paige and Katie to the Kent Ice Arena for ice skating practice this week. I’ll just wait for them to spill water on the kitchen floor.

4. Starbucks has Peppermint mochas in red Christmas cups, Wifi, and heat. On my way to Gold Star status.

3. It’s harder for the kids to argue with each other through chattering teeth and blue lips.

2. Sure the “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a good movie, but so are awesome YouTube videos about rebooting your furnace. There’s this one guy who actually reads furnace codes to you. Take that, Liam Hemsworth!

1. I was starting to run out of room in my freezer for my stockpiles of Peppermint ice cream. Soon, I’ll be able to store Peppermint Wonderland cartons in the pantry.

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How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.

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Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…

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What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.

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*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. 

Have a Habit You Want to Break?

Yesterday, I posted about New Year’s Resolutions. People who know me, and know of my propensity to run late for things, will think that I’m once again behind…posting about New Year’s resolutions on Feb. 1.

In reality, Chinese New Year begins on Feb. 10 this year, so this is actually a timely post for you to begin thinking about a new resolution you’d like to keep in your life. 

I have all sorts of ideas about habits I want to form and habits I want to break. Some of my habits are healthy. Others run the gamut from mildly bothersome to I-really-should-seek-out-a-12-step-program for this! But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about someone else. My daughter, for instance. 

Megan is quite simply a classic oldest child. She’s responsible. Self-motivated. A great student who’s also involved in everything under the sun from student government to knowledge bowl to the service organization Interact, and blah, blah, blah. I have very few complaints about the relatively easy job of parenting this kid except when she doesn’t eat. When Megan’s blood sugar dips, all of a sudden I have beast-girl for a daughter. 

She snarls. She snaps. And it takes me a few minutes to realize she has somehow missed a meal somewhere and is about to pounce and eat alive one of my other offspring/her siblings.  

It reminds me of the acronym HALT that my friend Bonnie, who’s a counselor, once taught me. Ask yourself: Are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If you are, it’s probably not the moment to make a major life decision, have a sensitive conversation, or even the right time to take an accurate assessment of things.  

Last summer, I read a fascinating book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg examines how we form and break habits in our lives. I recently came across a flowchart he created that looks at HALT a bit differently. 

Duhigg’s flowchart instructs you to figure out the cue when you feel the urge for a negative habit. What time is it? Where are you? Who else is around? What did you just do? What emotion are you feeling?  

Once you understand the cue, the next step is to figure out what “reward” the habit is satisfying. What are you really craving? Once you figure out what’s at the base of your habit, you can offer yourself a substitute reward or replace it with something new that satisfies the urge. 

Here’s a link to Duhigg’s flowchart teaching you how to create a new cue and reward loop to change a habit in your life. It’s interesting stuff. I’d write more, but I’m working on changing the cues and rewards for staying up too late at night…

Weighing That New Year’s Resolution

I’ve probably written about six posts since Thanksgiving. You didn’t see them? It’s because I wrote them in my head while driving or grocery shopping or exercising. I’ve mentally composed a few thoughts in the shower because warm water and soap inspire me.

It’s like that with most things. You have ideas. Intentions. Things you hope will happen. But ideas and intentions fall apart in the actual doing of something.

January begins, and by the end of the month (today), researchers say three-quarters of the people who created New Year’s resolutions have abandoned them. One month, and we’re paving the highway to hell, to mix my metaphors.

I was rather prosaic with my New Year’s resolution for 2013. It was as if I was on the set of Family Feud, and Richard Dawson was standing in front of me saying, “Name the top New Year’s resolutions Americans make each year.” I’m clapping my hands and shouting, “Lose weight” because I know it’s the #1 answer.

I’m challenging myself to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31, although I’m more interested in reaching that goal in a very doable 25 weeks.

It’s not a bad goal. It’s admirable to commit to better health, improve your diet, and increase your exercise. But it strikes me as a little boring. Sometimes I weigh things (yeah, pun intended) in terms of how my kids might look back and remember their growing up years. Will they remember when Mom lost 20 pounds. Maybe. Will it matter? Possibly, if it modeled for them the importance of good health.

It’s also possible that it’s a bit more about vanity and fitting into my size 2 clothes again…and that’s not a great message for my kids.

This evening, I read a story about Sarah, a woman who decided to host 500 people around her table in 2012. Meal by meal, she gathered friends and neighbors and people she didn’t know to join together at her table. Over the year, she hosted 27 parties, so that by Thanksgiving, she reached her goal of serving a meal to her 500th guest. No vague talk about “building community,” Sarah chose a concrete way to actually go out there and do it!

It’s such an incredible and amazing story. How much more fun to remember the year we invited 500 old and new friends into our home than to recall the year Mom dropped 20 pounds!

And so I’m counting up my plates along with my calories…planning some lean cuisine for the masses. Happy New Year!