living december with intention
every once in a while i have an idea that works. for me at least. and sometimes for others. recently, i had one about how to order my december. i was preparing an informal talk for a group of women i meet with quarterly and wanted to create a way to think about moving through what is typically a stress and pressure filled month with greater intention and care. a vision came to me of the many pushes and pulls on all of us during this month of preparing, finishing up the year, celebrating, and everything else. i imagined a compass being pulled off true north by magnets stacked high atop each other. while our december true north might actually be simply spending quality time with people we love, cultural, internal, and external “magnets” stack near us and pull us off course. without even thinking about it, we trade the quality time with others (that we claim is most important) for frantic shopping, efforts at creative wrapping, and preparing fancy offerings for potlucks. we forego reading to the kids (or ourselves) in order to get to yet one more cookie exchange. we “have to” make the one old family recipe even though it’s now easily purchasable and no one likes it that much anyway. the cards “must” go out and the lights “need” to go up.
my question is this: says who?
we are so easily swayed by what we “should” do, what we have done, and what we imagine others “need” us to do. for instance, culture tells me i should love to bake in december and that my home isn’t ready for holiday visitors until cookies and bars fill every container available. frankly, i’m not a sweets person and baking, regardless of the time of year, stresses me out. does this really mean i shouldn’t entertain for the next 3 weeks or, if i do, i should welcome my guests with treats that i resent having “had” to make?
and, so, i offer to you the way i found my true north for this december. it doesn’t take long and requires only paper, a pen, and a sticky note. i encourage you to try it out. there are three weeks of this lovely month left and by determining your true north you will have clarity about where to best spend your time and energy. perhaps you’ll even be able to let the things that don’t make the cut stay undone this year as an experiment in intentional sanity and peace making. for me, making sanity and peace is far more compelling than making cookies.
1 on the left side of the top of your paper write down all the things/happenings/items/events that made december a unique month as you were growing up. this should include positive things and negative things. good and bad. light and dark. think about things like: “my mom spending days in the kitchen and being in a terrible mood.” “us having to keep the house in order in case visitors stopped by.” “twinkly lights and candles.” “hot chocolate.” “christmas music.” “latkes/certain foods.” “feeling disappointed/lonely.” “giving gifts.” “being with family.” “playing in the snow.” “church/synagogue.” really let your mind go back and try to recall what contributed to december being a month unto itself.
2 now go back and write any and all emotions associated with each of these memories. consider feelings like joy, anticipation, sadness, stress, anxiety, pressure, belonging, fear, happiness, exhaustion, etc.
3 on the left side of the bottom of the page list the things/happenings/items/events that have made december what it is for the past several years. again...think broadly and widely. what makes this month what it is?
4 go back to this new list and write the feelings that correspond with each item.
5 look over the list, contemplating all the wonderful, difficult, unresolved, unconsciously driven things/happenings/items/events that make up december. begin considering which are the most important items on this full list.
6 now begin to discern which five of these items you would keep if you were only able to keep five. ask yourself questions like, “is the feeling that corresponds with this action worth my keeping it?” “do i do this because of assumptions i make about others or about my past?” “is this really important to me or do i do it automatically without much investment or reward and then feel resentful/tired/frustrated after doing it?” cross off all but five of the items.
7 circle the remaining items with intention.
8 transfer the list of five onto the sitcky note and consider it your new compass. use this list to discern what is truly important for you in the coming days. weigh options against this list. carry it with you. leave it out. spill mulled wine on it and use it as a spatula rest. let it mark your book or stick it to your dashboard. let your choices (rather than internal or external random pressures) guide you.
9 ask those who you share time and space with to do the same and see where your compass’ align and differ. consider how you might be able to help others have the experiences they’d like without it pulling you too far off center and ask them for similar support and help.
a few final thoughts: there are no “right” lists. there are only honest lists. when i did this experiment i found that, for me, giving gifts was a huge part of my excitement in this season. i found that i was willing to take some things that i had previously thought very important off my list in order to keep gift giving. many in the group i shared this experiment with sat in direct opposition to that, saying that gift giving was one of the first things they let go. one person found that she couldn't let "sending holiday cards" go and yet the only feelings associated with getting them in the mail were "overwhelm" and "complete stress." her mind was open to giving this up to make space for something associated with more positive feelings when she realized she could send cards to friends at less full times of the year. when my daughter did the experiment, wearing wool socks and sitting and reading our many children’s christmas books by the fire was on her list. she was surprised that the children's books were on my final list as well. we decided that this was much more important to us than having every decoration we own out and that we’d also be more relaxed about sitting and reading if we knew there was less to pack back away in january. so, for the first time ever, i pared way back in the number of christmas boxes i unpacked but every single kids christmas book we have is piled next to the fire place.
i encourage you to slow down. to breathe deeply. to remember there’s always next year (and 11 other months between now and then). that cards can be sent any time of year. that peanut butter and jelly is a fine contribution to a potluck. i encourage you to listen to your body/mind/heart and to move forth in what remains of this month with freedom and love and grace...heading to a true north that you choose rather than by one that chooses you.