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Yia-Yia’s Gifts

It was a late summer day; one of those days where the heat and humidity seem to hang in the air like a heavy blanket. I’d had two small sweaty children clinging to me for hours on end and was looking forward to a refreshing break. To say the previous few months had been challenging would be an understatement. I was still adjusting to the balance of adding a second child to our family and so many days felt like simply treading in hopes that I could keep my head above water. Then, only weeks earlier, we’d lost my mother-in-law, an unprocessed grief that weighed heavily on my chest as I attempted to breathe through the daily tasks that needed to be accomplished.

This warm summer evening held the promise of a brief respite. When my husband came home from work, I planned to bike to our local park and enjoy some outdoor yoga. Leaving crying children behind with a pang of guilt I felt a soft whisper saying – you deserve this break, take it, enjoy it.

In the park, under heavy clouds that threatened to drench us, I stretched, relaxed, breathed. As the class was wrapping up and we laid facing the glorious sky above in our final resting pose, I felt a single cool raindrop splash onto my hot forehead. Then another and another. The sky opened, releasing the most beautiful delicate shower. Perfectly refreshing in that moment, bringing much needed relief and healing. A gift from the heavens.

….

It was a dark night on the cusp of the seasonal transition between summer and fall. Our children were both sleeping, a miracle in itself, and my husband and I sat on the back deck enjoying the cool evening air. I’d say we gazed at the stars, but the night sky around Chicago twinkles more with light pollution and commercial air traffic than celestial bodies.

We were discussing life. More specifically, the hardships of life without my husband’s mother, our children’s grandmother, the incomparable Yia-Yia.

Just then we saw the clearest of all shooting stars race across the night sky, igniting the darkness. A signal; a gift from above.

It was a crisp fall day. The air was cold and fresh and pure. I had brought the girls out for a walk in nature, one of our favorite pastimes. A chance to collectively breathe.

The chill of the atmosphere made every sight and sound and sensation seem just a bit more poignant. It was impossible not to notice the simple joys of colorful leaves falling slowly from barren treetops and the crunch of dried leaves underfoot. A cool breeze danced across our cheeks and tickled our noses. I relished pointing out each indicator of the changing season to my older daughter, showing her, or perhaps myself, how life evolves and renews even through difficult transitions.

Just then we heard the distinctive honking of geese overhead. Looking up we saw a perfect “V” formation of geese flying. Swirling above, seemingly effortlessly. “They’re heading south for the winter,” I told my daughter who gazed at them, eyes wide with wonder. A reminder that on wings of hope, supporting one another, we can weather this difficult season together. A gift from heaven.

It was the morning of Christmas Eve, a day of excitement and expectation. After peeling ourselves out from the warm covers of our bed, we saw a beautiful sight outside the window. “Snow!” our older daughter excitedly exclaimed.

Snowflakes drifted peacefully from the sky, quickly blanketing the dull grey ground in a majestic layer of white. We were going to have a white Christmas, I realized with glee.

Though our hearts were still heavy with loss, the beautiful renewal that fresh snow brings made the celebration of Christmas seem a bit lighter, a bit more hopeful. The world was new and beautiful. As I glimpsed the delight on my daughter’s face when we ventured out to enjoy the first real snowfall of the season, catching sight of delicate flakes resting upon her dark eyelashes, I couldn’t help but look up and give thanks. Gifts falling upon us from heaven above.

This year was our first without my husband’s mother, my second mother, my children’s beloved grandmother. The hole in our hearts left by Yia-Yia is ever-present, but perhaps even more poignant around holidays, birthdays, and everyday celebrations. You see, Yia-Yia was a woman of great gifts. She enjoyed few things more, I believe, than pouring out her love onto others far and wide. Whether it was the intangible – her unconditional love and acceptance, attention, and affection; the delectable – her amazing and never to be matched cooking; or the physical – the carefully selected goods that would be just what you wanted even if you didn’t know you needed it; Yia Yia’s gifts were always filled with more thought and compassion than I could ever comprehend.

But this year there were no over-sized over-stuffed stockings for the grandkids to joyfully tear through. There were no boxes to unwrap, brimming with hand-picked items that I would never allow myself as indulgences, but Yia-Yia insisted I more than deserved. There were no happy gift cards arriving in the mailbox wrapped with the kindest words of wisdom. There were no meals filled with steak and crab cakes and salmon and more butter and love than you’d ever think could be contained in one beautiful dish. And there certainly wasn’t the same laughter and chatter and hugs.

Yet, I refuse to believe that Yia-Yia is not still with us, not still showering us in new and wonderful ways with her love and gifts. When you’ve lived such an incredible life and cultivated such an amazing soul, it’s impossible that such greatness can simply cease to exist. Maybe those we love, who no longer walk the Earth with us, are able to send us reminders that they are ok, and we will be too. Maybe God can send us gifts, hand-picked by those who know and love us from above, to show us they are still there, if only in a different form.

I’m not always a believer in signs, but over the past year, the above moments of joy and clarity that have cut through the grief and hardship have felt like more than coincidences. They felt like intentional gifts.

Among the million decisions that had to be made following my mother-in-law’s passing, my husband’s sister chose the heart-wrenchingly beautiful poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye titled “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” to be printed on prayer cards for her service. I remember reading the poem in haste at the time, thinking it was lovely. I stashed a couple of extra prayer cards away in my luggage and promptly forgot about them, until six months later when we were back visiting my sister-in-law for the holidays. When the tiny card fell out of my backpack, I stared in wonder as I read the forgotten words:

Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

It’s everyday. It’s the smiles that alight my children’s faces. It’s their deep, soulful, and infinitely beautiful eyes. It’s their dark hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sunlight, reminiscent of the Grecian goddess from whom they come. It’s the bodies and souls of these little girls who I would not be blessed to love were it not for Yia-Yia. These are the things that will never be forgotten. These are the things that do not die. These are Yia-Yia’s everlasting gifts. Infinite gifts from above.

Thank You.

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The Un-Gift Guide

I recently wrote about my distaste for the tradition of forced gifting for the holidays and the unnecessary stuff that comes along with it. But I know, too, that gifting brings immense joy, and a carefully curated present can be a heartfelt expression of love. I’m also aware that there are some societal pressures around gifting and, right or wrong, we will all probably still want a few things to wrap up for others. So I’d like to think outside the (Amazon) box when it comes to gifts and give some alternate ways to spread joy and cheer. Think of it less as a gift guide, and more as ideas to inspire your own unique and meaningful giving.

Ask for a wish list. Yes, you may want to show that you’re the mastermind of creativity and able to read minds to discern the perfect gift. But you’ll save a lot of hassle if you just ask someone what they want or need. If they say nothing, respect that too. Not everyone needs (or even wants) a gift.

Do a gift exchange. Rather than struggling to find a million small or meaningless gifts for everyone, see if your family or friend group would be open to an exchange. That way you can focus more effort and money towards something specific that your gift-ee might enjoy. My sister-in-law suggested a gift exchange for our family gifting this year and I could not respond “yes!” fast enough!

Give the gift of time. In today’s fast paced world, it seems like we never have enough time. Finding a way to help loved ones feel like they have a bit more time, especially in this season of busyness, can be such a blessing. Whether is offering to babysit so a couple can have a rare date, driving carpool so another momma can focus on herself or her other babies, or bringing over a meal so a neighbor doesn’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning. A few more minutes and a few less burdens are what we all need.

Share an experience. Living far from family, I can tell you there is no greater gift than time reconnecting with my favorite people. It could be sharing a cup of coffee and cozy conversation with a friend or enjoying a pedicure with your sister. Maybe it’s simply taking your grandchild to play at the park or taking your mom out to lunch and truly connecting. These are the gifts that will last. Memories made and relationships strengthened.

Give something consumable. Food is love. Coffee is life. (Or maybe it’s should be the other way around…) In any case, food, coffee, brownies, cookies, cake, etc. are perfectly acceptable and often preferred gifts in my book. If you give someone something they can enjoy in the moment, but doesn’t have to take up space in their home, it’s the best of both worlds.

Make something. Many of us have creative talents that are lying dormant just waiting for an opportunity to blossom. What better excuse than Christmas to brush off your crafting skills and make something with your whole heart. Bonus points if you can use what you already have on hand. You may feel like you don’t have time or talent, but even if you just bake a batch of store bought cookie dough, it’s something that you’ve had a hand in creating and is made with love.

Support local artisans. If getting your hands dirty for gift making doesn’t strike your fancy, it’s very likely there is someone else in your vicinity who has already done the dirty work of creating something beautiful. Maybe you have a talented friend you would love to support. Or scout out a local craft fair and connect with the person behind the wares. You’ll not only be giving your loved one a one of a kind gift, you’ll be giving hope to a budding business in your community.

Support a cause. What do you give to someone who already has everything? A gift for another who truly needs it. There are big organizations like Heifer International where you can donate an actual animal (or part of one) to help a family in need in another part of the world. Or if you prefer to keep it local, there are countless community charitable organizations that could use your aid. Our church hosts a really cool concept called Spirit Village, which allows you to stroll through a decorative Victorian marketplace, complete with caroling and live animals, and shop for unconventional gifts to support domestic and global outreach, ranging from donkeys of firewood to shoes and school uniforms for underprivileged children overseas. It’s a win-win-win in my opinion – family fun, supporting the missions of our local church, and gifting for those we love while giving to those in need.

Write a note. It can be words of encouragement, a note of thanks for being so incredible, or a love letter. As a writer I believe words are powerful and lasting and windows to our soul. So what greater gift could there be than something written from the heart?

Embrace the gift of nothing. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating. Sometimes it’s ok to just not give a gift, regardless of what society may think. Maybe some people on our list also feel a sense of lightness and relief in not receiving a gift and feeling pressured to respond in kind. Maybe we can all agree that our love for one another does not have to be wrapped up and put under the tree. Maybe our giving and showing of love does not have to be limited to one day or season. Maybe I’ll find something I know you’ll adore next week or next month or next year and I’ll send you a happy little mid-year surprise. Or maybe not, because I’m forgetful and distracted and busy and don’t really love shopping, and I hope you know that it’s no reflection of how deeply I care.

A gift from the heart, no matter how small, bears infinitely more value than a million meaningless tokens masked in beautiful wrapping. Give with love and you will have always selected the best gift, even if it’s not something you’ll find under the tree.

What are some of your favorite alternative gifting traditions? I would love to hear more ideas and inspiration for spreading joy and cheer!

Enough with the Stuff

The holiday season is officially upon us and though the Thanksgiving turkey has yet to be cooked, everyone is in a frenzy to start checking gifts off Christmas lists. Black Friday is in t-minus 7 days, which means we have less than a week to figure out how to get the most for the cheapest. And if we can only just find the perfect gifts for everyone, then all will be well and our holiday season will be perfect too.

I say enough. Enough with the stuff. I, for one, have had enough of the notion of forced or arbitrary gifting for a holiday.

I’ve had enough of the stress, both emotional and financial, of having to show someone you care by getting them physical possessions. Some people are masters of finding the perfect gifts for others. Some people actually even enjoy the process – the hunt for something a loved one will adore. Gifting is their love language. But I am not this person. I am the person who overthinks what I should get someone for weeks, wait until the last minute when I still have no ideas or time, and buy something random that I know the person might not actually enjoy. Yet I feel like I need to get them something. So the dollars fly out of my wallet, and along with them my dreams of owning a house or enjoying a vacation. Because, let’s be honest, gifting is expensive. Even if you plan to keep it small or set budgets, when you multiply the small gifts by all the family, friends, neighbors, teachers, whomever that you need to buy for, it can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. Of small stuff. Which brings me to my next point…

I’ve had enough of being on the receiving end of gifts that I don’t actually want or need, and that just take up space in my home and life. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I don’t really need another mug / scarf / decorative candle holder. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them, I am blessed with many loved ones who have impeccable taste and give me lovely gifts. But the problem is me. I am woefully disorganized and a trail of clutter seems to follow my every move. This problem is increased exponentially with young children and all the stuff that’s required to keep them fed, clothed and entertained on a daily basis. I wish I was better at keeping things stowed away in their rightful place, but I’m not. So when gifts we may not need come into our house, one of two things usually happens: 1. They get thrown into our office and forgotten because I can’t deal with the task of finding a place for them or, 2. They create more clutter on our floor / counter / life that simply stresses me out. I’m realizing more and more that stuff, and the effort it takes to maintain and put away said stuff, is a huge drain on my energy and joy. Isn’t spreading joy what we’re all striving for, especially this time of year?

I’ve had enough of how consumerism steals the joy and overshadows the meaning of Christmas. Did you know that Christmas isn’t actually about physical presents? Are you aware that Santa and stocking stuffers are not really requirements of a happy holiday? If you come from a Christian tradition, as I do, it might be worthwhile to focus on the greatest gifts of Christmas – the gift of God with us, the gift of grace. Regardless of your belief system, though, it’s so much more meaningful to spend time with the people you love rather than stressing about shopping for them. It’s easy to forget in the fanfare of the holidays what this season is all about. So I’d personally like to quiet some of the noise and the demands to create space and time to focus on family and faith. Maybe it’s necessary to clear away the unnecessary in order to see what’s most important; what we already possess. Unlike Christmas clutter, these are the gifts that last.

I’ve had enough of the wastefulness of buying something for one day that will have an impact on our planet for years to come. This may be the biggest issue that is often overlooked when it comes to unnecessary gifting. The non-renewable resources that go into producing the kitsch items we often give as gifts deplete our land and pollute our environment. An abysmally large proportion of gifts are discarded within six months because they have broken, become obsolete, or were never needed / wanted in the first place. For a fleeting moment of joy, we are filling our landfills for the foreseeable future. I think the most awakening summation of this issue I’ve read comes from this article, which gives the touching advice: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Our children don’t need another toy from Santa to know that we care, they need a future where they can continue to enjoy the beauty of the Earth we walk upon.

So maybe this year, instead of rushing off to stores before Thanksgiving leftovers have even be put away, we sit with those we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by just a bit longer. Maybe instead of running all over town, filling our heads with stress, we appreciate where we are and fill our hearts with memories. Maybe instead of adding more clutter this Christmas, we leave space for what matters most. Maybe we can all agree that we already have enough without the extra stuff.

At the risk of sounding like a complete Grinch, I feel compelled to offer some Christmas hope. Here’s the truth, as much as I don’t want to give or receive unnecessary stuff, I’ll still give some gifts, and so will you I’d guess, which is wonderful if done with mindfulness and love. So I’ll be following up with a list of ideas to make your gifting more impactful for those you love and less impactful on your level of stress, finances, and our Earth.