Sunday, January 14, 2018

Organization, simplification and downsizing.

This year I was especially prompt when it came to putting away the holiday decor. Though I totally understand those who leave their tree up throughout January (a less jarring transition into the New Year and glum First Month weather), I like to make the transition a quick one for practical and emotional purposes.

This year is a little different. We are facing the likely prospect of apartment or condo living for a few years starting this summer. We will be living as close to my grad school as possible to limit time spent commuting, which places constraints on our housing prospects since both programs are in very urban areas. Plus, we are feeling a strong pull to simplicity: someone else mowing the lawn; a smaller area to clean; walking distance to amenities; an on-site gym; etc. But that also means whittling down our belongings to fit in a significantly smaller space. The plan is to have a yard sale this spring/early summer, but a lot of sorting has to occur and decisions have to be made before that can happen.

I decided I wanted to start this process early and tackle it as organically as possible as opposed to putting aside entire weekends to sort through all the totes in our garage. So last fall I resolved to go through our holiday decor as we put it out and took it down. This past weekend I sorted through everything we didn't use and put items into boxes labeled for donation or a yard sale. Then I carefully packed up the stuff we do love and use and put them into labeled totes. What was once many boxes and totes with zero organization became a succinct storage system so we will know where everything is when we go to look for it in the future. (One tote for fall holidays, one for Easter, several for Christmas and so on.) What we were left with was a fraction of what we had before and I feel just fine about that.

This is absolutely the way to tackle the problem of stuff! We usually do it just prior to moving which inevitably ends in copious amounts of stress and a good dose of arguing. Four days before a cross-country move is NOT the time to be deciding the fate of that box of broken ornaments from your childhood. (Our previous moves have felt like last minute adrenaline-fueled affairs and I'm eager to do away with that particular habit.)

And just like that a project I've been avoiding for years was completed in a couple days. Because it seemed so much bigger in my head than it actually was.

I've had Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in my nightstand for a year but have yet to read it. (I'll get to it next!)  Still, I've seen enough interviews and read enough articles about it to understand some of the core principles. A big one for me is taking the time to evaluate individual objects while sincerely considering its value in my life. I also have to be honest with myself about why I hang on to certain things: is it really the love of an object that keeps it in my life or an unhealthy emotional tie I need to sever? I went through that process, briefly, as I put all the holiday decor away and cleaned out totes. Do I love this? Do I see myself using this for years to come? Is it going to hold up? and other such filters crossed my mind before deciding its fate. It works.

We did a giant stuff purge when we moved from New Hampshire to the Pacific Northwest 3 1/2 years ago. And yet so much still remained. (Enough to have a lucrative yard sale this past year.) We also have to consider that we are going to be transitioning from a 2400 sf house to something, well, much smaller, so we will have to be even more committed to letting things go. Which can be so very hard + anxiety-inducing. We have accepted that we will likely need to keep a storage unit for a few years, but we don't want that to be an excuse to keep stuff we aren't passionate about. Our future selves will thank us for tackling this now.

I got the ball rolling early on and that feels good. Now it's just a matter of keeping up the momentum as our moving date grows nearer. There are so many question marks in our lives right now that I don't want to add more stress to the mix. Slow and steady is the key, I think.

This year I resolve to be surrounded by only the things I love, to have less clutter, and to spending less time worrying about the state of our stuff.

Friday, January 12, 2018

All the feels in the New Year

The first part of January was over in the blink of an eye. Kiddo had a gloriously long Christmas break, and Mario and I each took a week off of work so we could focus on family time. I remember sitting in the living room on January 1st reflecting on how perfect this break seemed; the first in a long time to really stand out. I felt so connected to our family. Before I knew it the decorations were being stowed and life resumed its normal rhythm. Kiddo went back to school, I went back to work, and Husband left this week for an extended business trip.

At one point during the drive home from Montana my belly exploded with butterflies thinking about the year ahead. Mario just accepted a promotion at work and is chartering a new(ish) course in his career; Kiddo graduates from high school in about 5 months; and the culmination of nearly a decade's worth of work means my life's goal will be realized starting this summer.

For all the anxiety and frustration that has bogged down periods of my life, I look back and see how fortunate I've been. This life and my relationships have afforded me some amazing opportunities: the ability to stay home with my son (and also work, when the time was right); to travel; to attend college (and now grad school); to explore my many creative interests; and to establish rewarding, lifelong friendships throughout the country. I didn't often see it for what it was when I was in the thick of it, and sometimes I find that regrettable. Life could have turned out so differently, and not necessarily for the better, a realization that has instilled a deep appreciation for the less sunshine-y periods in my life. Because they were important, too.

Over the years my memories of the hard times have softened—the sharp edges becoming rounded—and what is left is profound gratitude. Gratitude for a husband who becomes more beautiful with time, both inside and out. True story: the other day I was meeting him for lunch in downtown Portland. I looked up as I entered a crosswalk and met eyes with a man whose attractiveness nearly stopped me in my tracks. A half second later my brain processed that it was my very own husband. It was an impactful moment and I've mentally relived it numerous times since that day. Because, you know, daily life and work and dish duty sometimes get in the way and you forget just how enamored you are with each other. The fact is, my fondness for that man has grown exponentially since the day we said I Do and I don't take for granted the fact that not everyone is so fortunate in their relationships. I have total equality, love and support from Mario and I strive everyday to make him feel just as loved. (Though my intensity makes me considerably less easy to love, I imagine.)

Last weekend we met up with some friends for an afternoon. We played pool (flashback to my friend's basement rec room in high school!), ate, and chatted. There was so much laughter. On the drive home my heart ached with the thought of packing up and leaving the life we've made here. We are uprooting ourselves again for all the right reasons—for the sake of an amazing future—but the heartache is real. I love the PNW, Portland, and all the amazing people we have in our lives because we chose this place to call home. Feeling equal parts excited and heartbroken is a strange place to live emotionally, but I'm trying to let all the feelings have their moment of recognition as they pop up.

Work has been tough lately. The end of the year is the busiest for the surgical services department, with people scheduling procedures before their deductible resets in the New Year. January has been busy, too, with flu season raging and traumas and unscheduled procedures. Last week I stayed several hours past my shift to assist with a deluge of emergency cases, finally crawling into bed at 2a feeling mentally and physically depleted. Yet I feel this intense responsibility to work more. To pick up all the extra shifts, to change my direct deposit to savings, and to throw money at our account for my remaining months in the workforce before school starts. This pressure is solely self-imposed, but powerful nonetheless.

In a matter of 6 short months I want to pay off every cent of debt we carry and have a savings account that is bursting at the seams. Come July I want to set all of our bills to autopay and not think about them once while I'm in school. And yet, that's completely unrealistic. An unfair expectation that only serves to create more stress and strife. The fact is we are in the best place we've ever been financially, making it the perfect time to leave the workforce for a few years. But the subject of money is complicated and emotionally charged and I am prone to overextending myself for the sake of possibly stowing away a few extra dollars. I imagine a lot of it originates out of guilt: I'll be taking on significant debt in the form of student loans and relocating our family for the sake of my dreams. (Mario doesn't feel this way at all, and reassures me all the time. Though guilt is guilt is guilt.) That internal drive that has led to my successes in life has a dark side: it often provokes me into putting unnecessary pressure on myself to make everything just right. It's an overarching lesson in self compassion I work toward perennially. Perfectionism aside, this coming endeavor is a big one; an undertaking that will require a great deal of time, money, and sacrifice. I am working to mentally prepare for all it entails, as much as one can having not yet personally experienced its intensity. In the meantime I need to cut  myself some slack and prepare in a realistic way, which means accepting imperfection for the sake of sanity. As much as I'd love to enter school with zero life interruptions and every possible scenario and snafu accounted for, it's simply not how life works.

Earlier this week I received an email from my program. It has our class roster, complete with the photos taken during our interview session, and several essay assignments. We are roughly 7 months out from our start date and already there are books to read, documentaries to watch, and a 17-week medical terminology course to complete. Upon reading the email it all became very real. Soon we will be shopping for new technology (switch to a Mac?!), tools of the trade, and a white coat (with my very own name on it!). There will be financial aid packages to negotiate and a house to pack up. Where will we live? (Apartment/condo vs house?) What plans will Kiddo make post-graduation? (Work, college or both?) What will life look like for us this fall? What do I do with my houseplants? When do I give my notice at work? Butterflies + anxiety. Butterflies + anxiety. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Compounding matters is a choice I made about a month ago: I accepted an interview at another program. There were two pipe dream schools, you see. A year ago when I was compiling my list of potential programs in preparation for the upcoming application cycle, I had a definitive Top 2. I thought I'd likely be invited to interview at one of them, and I was right. I have a seat with my name on it and have been absolutely over the moon since finding out. Mid-December I received an invitation to interview at my other top choice program. In the end I decided to go for it. Next week I will once again hop on a plane, suit in hand, to go through the arduous interview process just one more time.

Here's the thing: this second program costs $30,000 less overall and is in a state with no income tax, which combined would save us tens of thousands of dollars over the course of our time there. If I am accepted (the big IF), and my gut tells me there is a clear winner, money will not factor into my choice. However, if I'm presented with equally excellent options I'll likely be changing programs. Which leaves me feeling unsteady and uncertain. And more than a little guilty for even considering somewhere else in light of the amazing opportunity already awarded to me. (Again with the guilt!) In the end this is the absolute right decision and what is meant to happen will come to be. My life goals are too important to not thoroughly vet every amazing opportunity that comes my way. In addition to being nervous, I'm also incredibly proud of myself and humbled by my fortune. I've worked really hard and it feels amazing to have these highly competitive programs recognize my efforts.

At the end of the day these are First World problems, at best. As word gets out at work that I was accepted to PA school, I have been inundated with questions and comments by my coworkers. The physicians tell me how hard is it to get into a program (agreed) and others lament about how much they want the same opportunity. ("Yes, grades matter." "Yes, you have to have a degree first." "Yes, it's very competitive." and so on.) I am one of the fortunate ones who had the drive and ability to jump over the many hurdles this process has presented. (And the stamina to keep pursuing The Dream, always.) The fact that I have a rock solid support system in place allowing me to take on this venture hasn't escaped me for a second. Some have it easier, but there are many, many more who've had it harder.

And so I'm feeling all the feels and thinking all the thoughts. I'm putting the impending assignments on hold until the final decision has been made. Instead I'm actively trying to focus on the right now. Parenting a teenager, holding down a job, learning to throw pottery, and trying not to look too far ahead. There will be a time and a place for that.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Holiday Cheer: Saying goodbye to martyrdom + adopting (more) flexibility

Last night we pulled into the driveway after a whirlwind week of holiday celebrations. I'm a little worn out but also really pleased with how our holiday season has played out.

We celebrated our family Christmas Eve last Friday evening, and Christmas morning on Saturday the 23rd. After opening presents and enjoying our usual Christmas morning rituals, we packed up the gifts yet to be given + our warmest winter clothing and made the 8+ hour drive to Montana.

Christmas Eve was spent with lifelong friends who have long since become family. Christmas morning was spent in a hotel room, where we opened our stockings and a few small gifts delivered by Santa. It was intimate and lovely and, despite my previous concerns, I didn't feel like we missed out on anything. After breakfast we hopped back in the car and made the drive to my in-laws' house. After two days spent visiting with family and friends, we were again on the road heading back home.

Tomorrow evening we are headed to a friend's house, cheeseboard in hand, to ring in the New Year.

During those long hours on the open road, and in the hours since, I've reflected a lot on this holiday season. It didn't fit into those tidy ideals I had for celebrating family traditions, but it didn't leave me in want, either. This disparity can be summed up by the title of this post: I stopped being a martyr and allowed myself to view the holidays, and our celebration of them, with a lot more flexibility.

When I use the word martyr, I don't mean to imply that I worked my fingers to the bone for the sake of sympathy. But in years past I did take on too much which inevitably led to stress + misery + resentment. I consider myself a thoughtful gift-giver, which means I put a lot of effort into finding that perfect present. In addition, I'd go above and beyond with the wrapping and the stocking stuffers and homemade ornaments and, and, and. Especially after I went back to work full time, Christmas began to lose its joy at my own hand.

A few tweaks in my expectations made all the difference:

1. This year I made wrapping a family affair. We all gathered in the living room one evening, put on a movie, and wrapped all the gifts for family and friends. Then Kiddo and I did the same for Mario. Then Mario and Jared did it for me. No one person was relegated to the bedroom floor to wrap solo. There was one night last week when I worked until 11p then came home and started tackling a bunch of lingering tasks. That was a little taxing + stressful, but nothing like I've experienced in years past.

2. We have some lovely neighbors who bring over homemade treats and trinkets. We love to reciprocate, but the responsibility usually fell on me to make it happen. This is in part because Husband travels for year-end company meetings and doesn't share a strong affinity for holiday baking. Though let's be clear: I didn't often ask for help. (Which he would have done without hesitation.) Instead I took it all on at the expense of my own enjoyment. This year I picked out three simple recipes: a spicy pretzel-nut mix, gingerbread caramel sauce, and Puppy Chow snack mix. I bought all the ingredients, printed the recipes, and...asked for help. With the exception of the caramel, the boys made the rest while I was at work. Kiddo had a longer than usual Christmas vacation, so it was the perfect way for him to pass the time sans electronic distraction. I didn't feel the need to match our neighbors/friends in effort or number of treats made and that was such a relief.

3. I'll admit this year's Christmas ornament project briefly got the better of me. (This is not unusual; I'm trying to change my ways.) I decided to create some 3" and 4" embroidery hoops. I picked out some cute printed fabric bearing woodland creatures and embellished them with laurel wreaths, flower crowns, and pine boughs. I started early and was able to move through them quickly since they were small and simple in design. It was also my first foray into freehand embroidery, which was fun + exciting. Only, some of them needed to have the fabric pen markings I made rinsed off (+ drying time), then a felt backing attached, then wrapping... I didn't have enough time or hoops for everyone in my life to receive one. At 2a, while cutting out felt circles, it came to me: not everyone in my life needs to receive one. My brother-in-law's girlfriend whom I've never met?  Not so much. My good friend who loves my embroidery and always wants to see my work? Yes! And just like that I'd eased the strain I'd put on myself. As much as I want to please everyone, I can't. Nor should I. (An overarching life lesson that applies to nearly every facet of my interaction with others.) My embroidery hoops are a labor of love and I a) don't want to burn myself out and have it become a chore and b) only want to give them to people who appreciate the craftsmanship (needlepoint isn't everyone's style, after all, and that's okay).

And so goes the story of how I managed to make this Christmas more family-friendly and less stressful. Save for a mild panic that set in a couple days before we left for our road trip, in large part caused by my overcommittment to work in the weeks leading up to Christmas, this year was much calmer than in years past. Fewer presents, more time spent as a family, and less commitment to unnecessary obligations was the key to more peace all along.

Next year will be even more simple, I imagine. I'll be finishing up a grueling first semester of grad school, we'll be living in a new region, and our lives will be very different. Which makes me that much more grateful that we're moving closer and closer toward minimalism with each passing Christmas. Because, as it turns out, simplicity = joy.

Next up: Packing up the holiday decor. Organization, simplification and downsizing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Holiday Cheer: Handmade Gifts

Homemade gifts have become a staple in our house over the years. In the past they were often associated with whatever craft we were exploring at that time—we've since settled on hand embroidery (me) and woodcarving (him)—but the gifts were always well-received and often elicited a conversation about the ins and outs of our chosen craft.

With grad school on the horizon I will probably have to step back from homemade for a few years, but our aspirations for a simpler, more meaningful holiday season will not fall by the wayside. In fact, less time and an all-encompassing focus elsewhere means we will likely lean toward minimalism around the holidays for a period.

Some of our tried-and-true handmade Christmas gifts, which are fun to make + encourage family time + make the recipient feel loved:

Ornaments // My tree is covered in messy, hard-to-identify ornament projects Kiddo made throughout his preschool and elementary years. Every so often they need to be tended to with some glue or a needle and thread, but gosh if I'm not smitten with each and every one of them. Turns out, friends and relatives feel the same way about our adult creations! I've done an ornament project for the last 8 or so years, which we give to close friends and family. With Pinterest and Instagram, inspiration is everywhere. Bonus: it scratches that holiday crafting itch. (You can find some of my past ornament projects here, here, and here.)

Gift Your Hobbies // Over the past couple of years, I've gifted embroidery pieces. In the past it was jewelry, paper crafts, wool felting, crochet, and various other pastimes I explored. Husband carves beautiful wooden spoons by hand, which the recipient always treasures. I'm currently enrolled in a pottery class which includes unlimited studio time, firing and glazing. I didn't take advantage of those benefits in the early weeks of the course, but now I'm in the studio as often as possible which means many of my family and friends will be getting bowls and mugs this year. Will they be perfect? Not a chance! But they'll love them just the same and think of me every time they use that vessel. Whatever you're into (or have always wanted to try!), find a simple project and cross two things off your list.

Bake // We live in close proximity to a lot of neighbors that have become friends. I want to spread cheer to them during the holidays, and do so by making treats. I buy pretty canning jars and other inexpensive holiday containers in various sizes (which are gifts in and of themselves) and fill them with homemade treats like snack mixes, roasted nuts, caramel sauce, and cookies. Bonus: I get to bake without sweets lingering in the kitchen. (This Homemade Almond Roca is a perennial favorite!)

Share the love // If you know a friend would enjoy learning a new craft, make them a kit! With embroidery, for example, I would print a pattern (Pinterest is chock full of free patterns!) and include coordinating thread, the appropriate size hoop, a scrap of fabric, and a pack of needles. (Total cost: less than $5.) You could even make it more elaborate by including a cute tote bag, sewing scissors and/or a needleminder. Same goes for candle-making, wool felting, knitting/crochet or any other low maintenance craft: The supplies are simple, cost very little, and are readily available. (If it's a craft you enjoy yourself, you probably have almost everything on hand.) Even better? Include an IOU for lessons.

Framed photos // I had copies of Kiddo's senior photo printed on high quality matte photo paper and grabbed some simple frames from IKEA. Grandparents and other close relatives will get a photo all ready to hang.

More handmade gift ideas:

Giant knit blanket // This DIY video makes it look very doable.

DIY hanging holiday lanterns, which I think would be cute year-round.

Mini candles // I took a candle-making class recently and loved it! I picked up some mini Ball jars + scents, soy wax and wicks from CandleScience, all of which were relatively inexpensive and make a lot of candles. Every one of us in the class made a Blue Spruce candle—it seems to be a universally loved scent. I've been throwing around the idea of making mini candle trios for when I need a more substantial gift.

Martha Stewart's 54 Gift-Worthy Christmas Cookies

DIY Mason Jar Snowglobes (adorable! + adaptable to be non-Christmas themed!)

Infused Vodkas

DIY Wool Mittens (using old sweaters!)

Give me all your ideas!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Seen, Heard & Bookmarked: An Ode To Bloggers

There's a strange phenomenon that occurs in our household: the only time I will ever experience car trouble is when Mario is (far) away on a business trip. I've been fortunate not to have too many snafus when it comes to my car, but rest assured if it's going to happen Mario will be no less than 1500 miles away.

After working swing shift at the hospital last night, I crawled into bed shortly after midnight and awoke before dawn to get Kiddo up and going for school. We got in the car to head out and...nothing. Google said I have a faulty brake switch which has disable the push-button start on my car. No matter how easy the fix, Kiddo rode his bike to school on a frosty morning and I got to ride in a tow truck. (Which was quite fun + fascinating, actually. A virtual shout-out to Chris, the sweetest, most helpful tow truck driver I'm sure there ever was.)

So here I am, perched at a Starbucks adjacent to the auto shop, waiting to see if they can get me back on the road today. Otherwise, Enterprise.  As long as I make my 2p massage appointment. For the love of all things holy, I can't miss that appointment. After pulling a muscle in my upper back this past weekend, I'm still experiencing difficulty turning my head to the left. (You know that most uncomfortable 'I slept on my neck wrong' feeling? I've had it for four days. Oy.)

I'm a hot mess, in case you couldn't tell.

In an attempt to look at the bright side, had this not happened I'd likely still be sitting on the couch doing absolutely nothing of value. Instead, I'm perched at coffee shop listening to the complete works of Chris Stapleton (I'm obsessed!) and catching up on my neglected blogroll.

The blogosphere is chock full of beautifully talented writers, crafters and decorators. (These days the 'blogosphere," to me, includes platforms like Instagram.) After all these years I'm still awed by the artistry. Here's to you, bloggers.

Gingerbread men with character via The Pretty Bee (my mother-in-law is gluten-free, so these cookies may be making the trek to Montana with us this Christmas)

Clarks Shoes + Star Wars via Dominique (because girls love Star Wars, too)

Gourmet syrups, honey + condiments via Sprouted Kitchen

Drawn to the Long Sleeve Harper Tunic via Reading My Tea Leaves (+ these heeled clog boots!)

Are We Living In a Culture of Flakes? via Camille Styles (thought-provoking!)

Dynamite Plant Power Sushi Bowls are on my short list, via  Pinch of Yum              

how i shut my mind off lately via Free & Native (some I already do, others I'm going to try)

Nut Butter Coconut Chocolate Tart via A Cozy Kitchen (delicious-looking + dairy-free!)

Buttered Hot Cocoa via Tales of Me and the Husband (I've yet to try the coffee trend...)

Have a good week!

(Note: Apparently this post was published but only half the content was saved! I should be better at this by now...)

(Update: In case you were wondering, my "Steering Column Lock Actuary" went kaput. Apparently it's super common in cars with push-button ignitions. It disables the whole car and (welp) cost $1200 to replace. In lieu of gifts, this year we'll just take turns riding in my car.)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Seen, Heard + Bookmarked: Saying Goodbye To Fall

The leaves of the Pacific Northwest are having their last hurrah this week. The landscape is still alight with reds and yellows, and I'm absolutely loving this extended autumn we're having. We're on our third round of raking leaves in less than a week, and I have since decided to let the trees go bare before attempting another yard cleanup.

Last week we celebrated Thanksgiving with good friends and their lovely extended family. In the days since, the turkey bones have become broth, the tree has been dressed, and those little embroidered gifts I'm planning this year are in the works. Late fall/early winter are a calmer, more reflective time for me + the weather encourages nights in wearing comfy clothes. (Hurray!)

Husband has his usual end-of-year business travel, which means we will see his face once in two weeks. Fortunately my current position at work allows me the freedom to tailor my schedule based on the needs of my family, so I worked half my normal 8-hour shift this week and was home in time for dinner + bedtime.

Also, can we have a moment of gratitude for the inventor of the CrockPot? Ingredients thrown in before work, dinner ready when I get home. I wish I'd maxed out its potential earlier in my adult life.

And speaking of dinnertime, I've had my game face on this week. I started to refocus my nutritional goals earlier this month, but now I'm fully in Whole30 mode. I food prepped like a boss on Monday and had all the ingredients necessary to get through the week cheat-free. What I love about Whole30 is the ability to pick it back up at any time; I feel the benefits in just a couple of days; and I can bend the rules and still be successful (i.e. date night dinners out, a touch of soy sauce or sugar when absolutely necessary, etc). Every time I get back to eating this way, I immediately wish I'd never stopped. It takes a fair amount of effort, but it's totally worth it for me. And honestly, the more consistently I do it the easier/more intuitive it becomes. (The Whole30 breakfast tacos pictured above are so good + easy.)

Here are some things I've seen, heard and bookmarked lately:

Golden Soup (It was simple, Kiddo ate TWO servings, and it was satisfying. I subbed chicken broth for water to add some oomph. A second batch is in the works.)

The most darling face to hang on a wall.

I made this Crockpot Mississippi Pot Roast last week and it was a hit! (I served it over mashed potatoes.)

Came across a new (to me) clothing website. Loving this and this. (any experience with them re: quality, etc?)

My favorite dairy-free coffee creamer. (It has been difficult to find at times, but I think it's becoming a mainstay at my local Whole Foods.) Nutpods is a very close second.

Gift giving has been on my mind (and this blog) a lot lately. This article on changing or ending gift giving habits is awesome.

Adding Cherry Chocolate Nut Cookies and  Lemon Drop Candy Cookies to this year's Christmas cookie rotation.

The softest sweater to run errands in. Resisting the urge to wear it (I'm wearing it today.)

Digging the whimsy of glitter accented ankle boots (still not sure on what occasion I will wear them, but alas). I recently came across styles at both Toms and Anthropologie (my personal fave).

Loving these locally-made smocks, aprons and pinafores for holiday baking.

A Crispy Jalapeno Popper Dip recipe to add to our Christmas Eve appetizer rotation.

This Embroidery Hoop Wreath Tutorial is swoon-worthy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Holiday Cheer: Finding and Keeping It

Since taking our family trip to Disneyland last month, we are embracing opportunities to spend time together with even more frequency. We've seen two movies, in the theater, in the last 10 days, and this past Saturday night we wandered into downtown Portland to pick out some gifts and enjoy a family dinner out. We are ahead of the curve this year, which has meant less stress and more togetherness. It's how I always want the holidays to play out, but this year we are actually making it happen.

The last decade or so I've been gravitating toward a simpler Christmas. Over the past 14+ years we've had numerous discussions with well-intentioned family members about embracing quality over quantity when it comes to holiday gift-giving. Despite my best efforts, most years it was necessary to accept unwanted gifts with a loving heart then donate the items to charity after the holidays (or return them, though they seldom came with a receipt). This year my husband's siblings and their families are meeting at my in-laws' home, which means travel for most of us. Because of that it was suggested we only do small stocking stuffers for one another.  This is a wonderful alignment of ideals, and I'm excited to receive less, spend less, and take on less this holiday season. Besides, assembling gift bags/stocking stuffers is my love language!

With the ongoing goal of a more meaningful, less materialistic holiday season, I've leaned into the idea of mixing homemade gifts with store-bought trinkets; gifting experiences over objects whenever possible; and sharing good tidings with neighbors and friends without adding more stress + expense to an already hectic season. (I am prone to trying to outdo myself every year. It's exhausting)

Over the next couple weeks I'm going to share some tried and true methods for satisfying my perfectionist + overachiever tendencies while preserving my sanity and ability to pay the electric bill. (If for no other reason than to reread these posts when I lose my marbles and need a reality check.)

This first post involves general ground rules I've laid out for myself (or aspire to, anyway). Some are simply thoughts or life lessons surrounding the holidays.

Christmas Cards/Letters // Sending out a yearly Christmas card, in my opinion, is totally optional. Still, I like to share what's been happening with family and friends who live far away, but have never been a fan of holiday letters (writing or receiving them—though everyone is different and so are their circumstances). For many years I have opted to do a 2-sided holiday photo card (Snapfish has great coupon codes). I gather up my favorite iPhone pics from the past year, the ones that most reflect our lives and activities, and let the photos tell our story. This year, for instance, I included a selfie of me wearing a sweatshirt bearing the name of my new grad school. Tale told, little effort.

Coworkers/Teachers/Etc // When Kiddo was in elementary and middle school, he only had one teacher and a small group of support staff that we gave gifts to during the holidays. I would get really elaborate some years, depending on my mood, and it often led to unnecessary anxiety and expense (those gift cards add up!). High school is a whole different beast, so we've moved on from individual gifts. Instead we donate goods, services and money to various school organizations throughout the year. And never underestimate the power of a sincere thank you email.

Instead of gifts, consider organizing a lunch for all the teachers and staff. Websites like Perfect Potluck make it simple to get people signed up, and even the often less recognized staff are celebrated. Similarly, you could organize a cookie/bar potluck where teachers can come and create a mixed plate of treats to take home to their families.

I have a lot of coworkers who have become close friends, and they will receive a small handmade token of my affection. Since changing positions this last summer, I have new coworkers who I am naturally much less close to. I haven't decided what, if anything, I'll do for them, but if nothing comes to mind I'm giving myself permission to just pass along verbal well wishes. (Let yourself off the hook!)

Gifts in Lieu of a Relationship // First and foremost: Don't do it. That being said, I step into this emotional minefield every.single.year. I have a family member that struggles through life. This person has children who also struggle. For the sake of my own mental health, I have to separate myself from the situation and therefore have little interaction with them throughout the year. But come Christmastime I think of the lack of gifts they may receive due to a variety of circumstances and my heart hurts. That's when I start trying to fill the emotional void with gifts. This year was no exception. The gifts have already been purchased, but next year I'm making a promise to myself to send a Christmas card and some kind words.

Giving Trees // They are everywhere and such a great way to give to others. There are two at my work, and I usually pick one tag for each of us to fulfill (though I want to help all the people!). I love watching Kiddo select gifts for another child! Last year I picked a tag for an elderly woman requesting knitting supplies. I no longer crochet but had loads of unused yarn, so I bought a decorative tote and some small knitting tools and gifted her my entire yarn stash. Win-win!

Gift Experiences // This has become a big one for us. Instead of receiving material objects we likely won't treasure forever, we create memories that last a lifetime. Is there a place you've always wanted to visit or a concert/play you've always wanted to see? Make that the gift. If you want something tangible to wrap, put the tickets, a map, or related travel necessities under the tree. Very early on in our marriage Mario gave me a gently used first edition copy of Wicked. Tucked inside its pages were two tickets to the show. When I see that book up on the shelf, I still think of that night. It is hands down one of the best gifts I've ever received, yet it lives on primarily in my memory.

If you have suggestions about navigating the holidays with family, friends and acquaintances, I'd love to hear them!

Next time: Handmade Gifts!