Friday, November 26, 2010

Selling Time: A Holiday in Black

by Zinta Aistars

My daughter and son, Thanksgiving
 Another holiday season approaches ... and I cringe. No, I'm no Scrooge, but I do bah humbug the holiday season, that period of time between Thanksgiving and the rolling in of the new year, as my very least favorite time of year. The saving grace is that it is winter. I love winter. I love snow. It can make the holiday season tolerable for me.

This past week has been a test of endurance, as my father spent four days of it in the hospital, then I caught his illness (after the hospital staff insisted his illness was not contagious) and spent a day at home feeling like death not nearly warmed over, and then returned to work scampering madly to catch up on all that I had not been able to do over those four days... and all of it intensified by the coming in of the holiday season with Thanksgiving.

An ingrate, you think? Not at all. I am intensely aware of my blessings, and roll them over in my mind and my heart each and every day. I have plenty. Too many to count. Highest on my list this Thanksgiving was the restoration of my father's health ... and it didn't hurt to more or less have mine restored, too, if still feeling a bit tattered. Health is everything. This past week keenly reminded me of this. Without it, nothing else matters.

If the holiday season were more about being aware of, and enjoying, our many blessings, I would be enthusiasm personified. It is not. Where and how did this holiday become a five-week long exhibition of greed, selfishness, and the ugliest forms of materialism? I had only a moment while cooking the Thanksgiving meal to glimpse a snippet of news in the evening on the television someone had turned on downstairs, but what I heard was that this was the first time ever that some stores had decided to not wait until "Black Friday" to open their doors. They were open and advertising their sales on the day of Thanksgiving.

Not even one day.

Black Friday, indeed. The term presumably has come to mean the American super shoppping day for Christmas, when retail stores go deep "into the black" with their profits, while (as a journalist friend glumly remarked on her Facebook status update) the American shopper goes deep "into the red." That is, into debt.

I watch very little television, and I watch even less when this season rolls in. If there is anything worse than political campaign ads, it is holiday ads. When I turned on the television on the day I was home sick earlier this week, I saw an ad with a bleached blonde, middle-aged woman in a bright red track suit, a look of sheer madness glazing her eyes, pulling several shopping carts behind her, each weighted with heaps of what would presumably be shopping bargains, stop watch in hand, and training like an athlete for the coming ordeal. The ad is run by Target. I turned the television back off and went back to feeling sick.

Christian or not, whether one believes this holiday has anything to do with Christ or not (researchers actually believe Christ was born in the summer, probably July), if this holiday was by any measure meant to be a time for family gatherings, a time to appreciate those we care about most, a celebration of divine love, human or otherwise ... it has become anything but that. How can one see, truly see, over the heaps of bargains, stuff and more stuff, to the love on the other side? What exactly are we loving? Each other or this indulgence in gluttony?

I am not against giving a gift or two to someone we love. I have given some very special ones, and I have received more than a few. The giving and the receiving has brought me joy at times, while at others it has felt more like a burden. I enjoy filling the stockings for my children, and even now, when they are adults, I still enjoy filling them with cute little somethings. It was when I realized it was all going to an extreme, deep into excess, that I began to feel the ugliness. The excess ate away at the shared love. If one thoughtful gift conveys love, twenty-five gifts do not convey more of it.

Mom counting her blessing...
 So as I cooked the turkey for my family and prepared our holiday meal, I counted among my blessings that I would not be among the hoardes of crazed shoppers on Black Friday. Never have been. Never will be.

The entire year behind me had been one of giving to those I love most. When my daughter lost her job in Chicago and struggled to find a new and suitable one, I did all I could to help support her household until she was back on her feet again. When my son, too, was laid off from his job, the company for which he worked shrinking down to no more employees but the owners themselves, I helped however I could to keep him going, even hiring him to do renovation work around my own house. He did a great job. When my parents struggled with the woes and aches of aging, I took time to take them places, provide new and enjoyable experiences, treat them to something as yet unexperienced and memorable. Gifts to those we love should come all year round, when they are needed most, and as true need arises.

As I sat at our Thanksgiving table, listening to my father say grace, it suddenly hit me. The gift of time. Over the past year, I have come to enjoy my relationship with both of my parents more than I have in my entire lifetime. As I have watched them age, as I have listened to them express their grief over the passing of several dear friends during the past year, I  have been acutely aware that time is running out. For all of us. Time races by, faster than we can imagine, and in the end, all we have had ... is time. The greatest gift of all.

As Thanksgiving day drew to a close, the night grown cold and dark, I stood at my door waving at my daughter as her car pulled away for her drive back to Chicago. How quickly the day had whisked by. The delicious bird was just a carcass now, boiling in a pot on my stove for turkey broth to use later.

What I would have given for just a little more time with her ... a little more time with all the people I love so much, but so many of whom are no longer with me. I am not going to waste any time. I am not going to stand at the graves of loved ones someday with a heart filled with regret because I didn't give them enough time.

In a harried and rushed world, time seems to be the most difficult gift to give. Yet nothing I had done of late had so enriched my relationship with my parents as the fact that I had made a commitment to spend more time with them. So many old chips had fallen off my shoulders. So many old wounds had healed. So many misunderstandings and sore feelings from more youthful and stoopid days had been cleared away.

I am not even sure when all that happened, but over time, over time spent together, sometimes doing nothing more than sitting shoulder to shoulder and watching the day, something magical, something healing, something wonderful had happened. I had really gotten to know my father ... not just as my father, not just as an artist I had admired all my life ... but as a person. As a whole human being, complex as that is. And I had really gotten to know my mother. With her especially, I was astounded at how differently I could see her today than I had seen her years ago. Like many mothers and daughters, we had had our conflicts, our frictions, our disagreements. I held her to high standards, and over time, I had realized how many of them, on my part, had been unfairly high. Over time, I began to see her not just as my mother, that ideal, that hero I wanted her to always be ... but as a person apart from myself. A woman who had led quite an interesting life. Another imperfect human being who actually has some pretty remarkable qualities. I hope I have inherited at least a few.

Lorena and her grandfather
 All of that took time. I didn't realize all that was happening. Somewhere along the way, I just realized I was having a lot of fun hanging out with them. One at a time, or both together. What had started as a commitment had become something I found myself increasingly looking forward to ... our time spent together. Being friends.

There was a point on Thanksgiving day that I felt worn out. Overwhelmed. Tired. Days spent at the hospital, watching over my father and his care. A day spent so sick myself, that when I was thirsty, I could not find the strength to rise from my bed and go all the way down those stairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. I did without. Days spent back at the office, chasing deadlines I had missed, catching up on projects that required my input. Evenings of shopping for the holiday meal and preparing the menu. Cleaning house for my soon-to-arrive guests. I was worn out.

The turkey was in the oven, beautifully prepared according to a new and somewhat elaborate recipe. Pots bubbled on the stove. The kitchen was steaming with delicious aromas. And I sat at my dining room table, my hair pulled up and out of my flushed face, still in my sleeping shirt, towel in hand, and tried hard not to cry. And failed. My mother, my father, sat across the table from me, watching my distraught face closely and mirroring it. They listened to me. They listened to my litany, to my whine, to my babbling, to my whimper, to my story of my week. They nodded in understanding, and I knew they did.

"I'm tired," I sighed. "I'm so tired. I could so use more time."

My father struggled to get up out of his chair. His back was bent from past surgeries and aching, as always. He hobbled over to me, slow and cautious, arms outstretched. My mother drew a hand across her own flushed cheeks, to wipe away her mirrored tears. They hugged me. They held me, and rocked me, old child that I was, and my father's eyes became wet, too... that man I never saw cry as a child.

And I felt better.

They responded to me with words that told me that over the past year, they had followed my life closely, too. They knew about the work that I am doing. They knew about the dreams I am so avidly chasing. They know about the novel I am writing. They have followed the story of my journey to Latvia a few weeks ago, and they spent two entire days looking through my photos and listening intently as I read aloud to them my travel log. They know about the freelance articles I write and the interesting people and places I get to learn about in doing so. They know about the books I read and enjoy. They know about my worries, my hopes, my concerns, my challenges, my moments of joy. They know me.

They have taken the time to get to know me, their daughter, not just as their offspring, but as a whole person, separate yet bonded to them. The only investment required to do so ... is time. Those too busy cling to the saying that it is "quality not quantity" that matter, but I know absolutely that isn't so. While quality is important, only quantity allows us to truly connect with another human being.

Just be...
 No gift, no bargain, no sale can give any of us what all of us really need. There are no shortcuts to getting to know someone we love. As much as we love our family members, we don't always know them very well, and that takes time. Sometimes we know those closest to us least of all, because we come saddled with projections and expectations and impossible standards, asking more what can you do for me than what can I do for you. Yet it is only when we stop, pause, and take the time to do for another that we begin to truly know them, and in getting to know our family better, we can't help but get to know ourselves better, too.

Santa, this year, and all years on out, please pass me by. Go home. Spend some time with Mrs. Claus. Hang out with the elves a bit. Let the reindeer graze. Park the sleigh and build a snowman instead. Stop asking me for my list of stuff and remind me to go home and be with my family and friends. Just be. Because spending time with those we love, and who love us, will never put us in the red. It can only keep us well in the black. Richer after the holiday than before it began. Imagine that.

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