Going to Hawaii for Christmas had been on my bucket list for a long time. I’ve had no qualms stating repeatedly that Christmas is not my thing. I’ve never found it magical; it’s been more of a thing-you-have-to-get-through-before-starting-a-new-year obligation. Too much cooking, too much eating, too much spending, too much wrapping, too much socializing, too much of everything that stressed me out and make me tired. I was the only person I knew whose favorite Christmas song was Mele Kalikimaka and not something like White Christmas. After yesterday, I don’t expect that preference will change any time soon.
I started my day by stepping out onto the deck outside our room and just inhaling the sunrise in full and present awareness that the day represented a long-time wish achieved. I knew we had zero plans for the day. Anything we wanted to do would occur within a tenth of a mile from rental house. As a person who is nearly perpetually in motion, the concept of having nowhere to go and nothing to do was freeing.
Luke had offered to make a big American breakfast for everyone, so he and Steve got to work on hashbrowns, eggs, english muffins, and bacon while I sat sipping Kona-grown coffee with oatmilk and honey.
From breakfast at 10 until dinner at 4, nothing of consequence occurred. The day was a free-for-all of hammock time, exploring tide pools, swimming, snorkeling, and sitting in the shade listening to the palm trees sway in the breeze. It was exactly what I had hoped for and imagined. The boys spotted a sea turtle near the house. I swam with some Moorish Idols and Kikakapu Threadfin Butterflyfish. Steve went with my sister-in-law, Linda, to a local fish market to acquire our dinner. The rest of the day was spent searching the sea for whales and splashing in the pool. Joe found a coconut, which he decided to break open and sample because why not?
Linda had graciously agreed to prepare Christmas dinner for us all. Steve made us our annual holiday cocktail, Brazilian Caipirinhas (vodka, lime juice, and sugar) and then we enjoyed grilled blue marlin with papaya salsa, salad, and white rice, all accompanied by a lovely Hawaiian sunset.
After dinner, the boys enjoyed the spa and the pool before we eventually got around to unwrapping stocking stuffers and having fruit with yogurt for dessert before calling it a wrap on the most chill Christmas Day ever. It had been perfection. And, sadly, instead of feeling I had achieved my goal and could, therefore, move on, I decided there will have to be more Hawaiian Christmases in my future. I think these photos of the boys best sum up both the peace and joy of our very Mele Kalikimaka.
I christened my day with a meditation. Sitting on a lava boulder, facing the indomitable Pacific, with the actual ocean as my ambient noise and guide. When I meditate, I prefer to do so through mantras. That seems to be the only way my writer’s mind can focus, through words. I start my mediation with an intention, something on which I wish to focus, and I pick a phrase. From there, I let that phrase morph until I land on an organic one that sticks. Then I let that one settle in and carry my intention with it.
Today’s intention was to focus on being curious rather than judgmental, ala Ted Lasso’s advice. I settled upon a Hawaiian image. I imagined myself as a lava rock, washed by the sea, but not changed by it, an immovable object not reacting to the forces before me but simply noticing them. It seemed the ideal way to practice observing other people’s comments and reactions with curiosity without allowing them to affect my calmness and stability.
After a few breaths, my mantra settled in. As I inhaled, my mind asserted “I am a rock,” and as I exhaled, it reminded me “Nothing can disturb my peace.” I focused on that for ten minutes, mentally acknowledging only the sea breeze, the sounds of breaking surf and birds, the hardness of the rock beneath me. (Perhaps next time I will bring a blanket for my rock meditation?)
Any skill comes through practice, which is why meditation is a practice. It’s not something you perfect. Not unlike the ocean tides, it has ebbs and flows. One day, your focus is legendary. The next it is complete horse shit. And the good news is that is exactly as it should be. Sometimes your mind is calm, quiet, and peaceful. Other times, it is rough, cloudy, and choppy. It is what it is to be human. For a long time, I, like many others, thought meditation was a place you arrive at, a destination which only few are allowed to inhabit. Not so. Meditation is a commitment to quieting your mind. That is all. It’s the practice through which you can begin to control your thoughts rather than be controlled by them. It’s available to everyone who endeavors to take the journey. It costs nothing, but yields great things.
So, my Christmas wish for all of you is the strength and perseverance to find inner calm in the chaos of this holiday. I hope you take a moment to be a rock, to pause to observe what is happening around you without allowing it to move you, to be present in the presence of presents. Let the insanity of your crazy uncle’s comments wash over you rather than shake you from the peace that this day represents. You are a rock. Nothing need disturb your inner peace.
With that thought in mind and with any luck, perhaps you won’t have to swill spiked eggnog to enjoy your day with your natural or chosen family. Be strong. Be curious. Inhabit stillness in the midst of noise and wrapping paper and requests and obligations.
Mele Kalikimaka from Hawaii, my fellow travelers through this life!
The worst part about vacation is the getting ready. The worst part about taking a vacation during the holiday season is that you have to do all the work for the holidays that you normally do, but you have to do it in less time, and you have to add all the vacation prep to your already tightened schedule. I’ve been a stressed out nightmare the past couple weeks. My days packed, my list of things to do seemingly insurmountable, trying only to get from one event to the next, never being able to get ahead. I’ve been testy and tired, anxious and annoyed. I’ve not been my best self. Some days, I wasn’t sure who I was. Today, it hit me that I have been the Grinch.
My goal for vacation is to toss off my grinch mindset and embrace the present with peace in my head. That will be achieved through some meditation, some fresh, salty air, and some sand under my feet. And maybe a piña colada or mai tai or two. Maybe without all the traditional trappings of the holidays, without the obligations and the busy work, the peace that is meant to consume this season will consume me and allow my grinch heart to grow three sizes.
Can the Grinch be tamed by a Mele Kalikimaka? I will let you know if Hawaii is able to work her magic. Stay tuned.
Now that we are past Thanksgiving, our neighborhood has gone full bore into holiday mode. The lights that were going up at the beginning of November were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Since that time, more homes have had lights professionally and tastefully installed. Other homes have also been decked out by hand by well meaning homeowners. Inflatables have sprouted up in yards like dandelions in the summer. Lights are strung across back fences between neighboring houses. On one block, it’s clear that the homeowners consulted with each other because each house on the street has the same light-up snowman, so as you drive the street it seems you’re in the midst of a snowman parade. I can’t decide how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s lovely to see people making the most of the season and taking pride in their homes. On the other hand, however, it’s one big festival of keeping up with the Joneses.
Our block has been on the low-key side of things thus far. There are thirteen homes on our street, and a little less than half have some sort of exterior illumination and only one of those was installed professionally. I have to admit, though, that after driving through the neighborhood tonight I started thinking that we need to up our game, at least a little from the one lit tree we have in our yard and the light-up corgi on our porch. It’s hard not to feel the siren’s song of oneupsmanship. It’s hard not to feel like we’re currently getting a D in Suburban Life.
I suspected when we bought into this neighborhood that these type of displays should be expected around the holidays but, damn, I seriously underestimated the collective decorative insanity of upper middle class white households. This year, we will likely forego the requisite holiday explosion, but we’re making plans for next year. Don’t worry, though. We will not be lighting up the night quite like these folks.
For many, many years, one item on my bucket list has been to spend Christmas in Hawaii. I’m not sure where this idea originated, but I’ve been bugging Steve about it for a while. In early January of 2020, we were able to plan and book a family trip to Hawaii for Christmas with Steve’s family, courtesy of my exceedingly generous mother-in-law, Marlene. Then, all hell broke loose in China and it spread to Iran and Italy, and Steve and I suspected our trip might be doomed. Early on during lockdown, we kind of held out hope that maybe things might be okay if everyone banded together to fight this common enemy. We might still be able to make Hawaii for Christmas. But the country didn’t band together, Covid kept surging, and Hawaii said a polite “No, mahalo” to incoming visitors. Our airline reservations were cancelled. The VRBO gave us our rental money back. And we spent the holiday in new, matching, family flannel pajamas in snowy Colorado instead.
This year, we threw caution to the wind and tried booking our Hawaiian Christmas again. We found a different VRBO. Booked flights and a rental van. And then we waited. We were encouraged in March and April when people were gobbling up the vaccination appointments. Then the rate of vaccinations slowed substantially, and we went back to our waiting game. I didn’t even look for a dog sitter until September because I was that certain we would not be going. But here we are now, a little less than six weeks from our departure date, and things are looking like we just might make it.
The State of Hawaii is allowing visitors with proof of vaccination (meaning we don’t have to have Covid tests before our flight), and all seven of us have been vaccinated and will have had our boosters too by the end of this month. We’re a little late to the game now, but we’ve begun booking activities. Steve, the boys, and I have a helicopter tour booked. We’ve also got seats at a luau on Christmas Eve. We’re working to secure a reservation for a dinner cruise. We hired a photographer to take some family photos too. There are a couple more activities we’re interested in, but the point of the trip was to hang out as a family so that is what we will spend most of our time doing. To that end, after researching and hemming and hawing over five different homes big enough to accommodate our group, we ended up reserving one that is right in Kona and on the ocean. It even has some sand and a hammock. There were newer homes. There were flashier homes. This one looks a bit over-the-top with island decor, but the location, though, am I right?
With just six weeks to go before our flight to the Big Island, all I have to do is about thirty five days on the Peloton, four million sit ups, and some dreaded swimsuit shopping. As National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a family tradition each year, I already know the lyrics to Mele Kalikimaka. I will be singing them to myself every day between now and December 25th, when I will cross this Hawaiian Christmas dream off my bucket list.
I don’t know how it is going where you live, but in our neighborhood the holidays begin now, apparently. Many homes have their holidays lights up, and they are turned on nightly. It’s a little early for me. I don’t want my holidays combined like a vanilla/chocolate swirl soft serve. I want to suck every last moment out of fall and savor every drop of pumpkin spice latte. I don’t even want to think about putting a tree up until the last of the pumpkin pie slices and bites of turkey have been consumed. What is the big rush, anyway? The Christmas season in our home exists for five, precious, ephemeral weeks, and I think that is what makes them more special. It appears I am in the minority, though, because here we are, all lit up like I am already behind on holiday shopping and wrapping.
There is only one holiday component that is allowed to begin before Thanksgiving, and that is the preparation for our yearly holiday card. The family holiday card is something we’ve done since Thing One arrived in 2001. We have not missed one year of this tradition. We know that in a couple years it’s likely that the photos on these cards will change as the boys move on into their own lives, but Steve and I will continue sending out holiday cards as long as the post office continues functioning. It may be old fashioned, but we enjoy it and there’s no stopping now.
Today I started the process for this year’s cards. I began looking online for outfits for the family photos. In the past, I have gone in person to Gap, Old Navy, or J Crew to try to piece together clothing that would coordinate but not be super matchy-matchy. But with a thirteen-week-old puppy in the house, I have too little time for those shenanigans so I opened my browser and got busy. It didn’t go as well as expected, so in the end today I decided to shop in our closets for suitable photo attire. Without too much digging, it was mission accomplished. Next up: location scouting.
We’ve never had a paid, professional photo taken for these cards. We do them ourselves, which makes them feel less polished and more, well, us, I think. We have had, on a few occasions, a family member or friend snap photos for us after Thanksgiving Day or after we cut down our Christmas tree. More recently, however, Steve has set up his fancy camera on a tripod at our chosen location. Capturing a decent photo has not always been easy. For starters, when the boys were younger, they seemed had an aversion to looking directly at camera. So, we would take 30-40 shots, sometimes pausing to run back into the car to warm up because it was so cold. Some years, we had to go with a photo that was not what we really wanted but was the best we could get. The process has not always been ideal. Often there are myriad complaints. Sometimes there are cross words. In the distant past, there may have been threats, bribes, or ultimatums in effect. I always have the final say over the photo we use because this tradition is my baby. I love putting together and sending out holidays cards, even as the number of them we receive has dwindled because others have given up on the expense, time suck, and frustration of this perhaps outdated holiday tradition.
I’m still not quite ready to let this go. I’ve kept a book containing our holiday photos over the years. It’s fun, if a bit sobering, to view these now. Each photo has a story or memory attached. There was the year that Joe insisted on having his shark, Bruce, in the photo. There was the year we took our holiday photos in Hawaii dressed like typical Hawaiian tourists. There was also the infamous year the boys had bowl cuts and were looking pretty spiffy. I am grateful, however, that we have persisted with this tradition because we will forever have these memories and photos of our time with our sons as they grew, no matter what the future holds.
We moved into our current home in the summer of 2020. When Halloween rolled around, there were just five occupied homes on our relatively new block in this growing community. As I drove through our neighborhood last fall, I had dreams that Halloween would be insane because there were so many homes with young and school age children. I bought a ton of candy in anticipation of the throngs I expected. Whether it was pursuant to the pandemic or our mostly unoccupied block, we had two small groups of trick-or-treaters last fall. I consumed most of the candy that was leftover. Boo.
This year, with the pandemic concerns lessened somewhat and with all of the homes on our block finally occupied, I went to Costco and picked up two large bags of candy. Tonight, we had maybe 25 trick-or-treaters, all of whom were treated to a massive handful of candy. It’s almost 9 pm here now, and if I want to get rid of the ton of candy that is left in my house, I need to pray for some wayward teenagers to come and raid bowls I set in our driveway under a neon sign. What I hoped would be a sugar rush was actually a sugar crash. Sigh.
I am hoping that as the years go by, we continue to see an upward trend in little peoples darkening our doorstep dressed as adorable lions or scarecrows or firefighters or unicorns or fairies. Until then, I need to either stop buying so much damn candy or find a way to turn it into a fuel source.
In the meantime, I just saw a holiday ad on television, so it appears we’ve already moved on. Maybe I’ll just stuff the holiday stockings with leftover Halloween candy. Problem solved.
Maybe it’s just me, but I miss the post office that existed before Trump appointed Louis DeJoy to take over as Postmaster General in May 2020. I really do. I know many people don’t mail things, what with online bill pay and Facebook posts in place of Hallmark greetings, but I used to regularly send cards to friends for their birthdays. I don’t do it much anymore because I have no idea when my greetings will arrive so I don’t know if I should be sending regular birthday greetings or sorry-I-had-to-send-this-belated-card-even-though-I-mailed-it-in-what-should-have-been-plenty-of-time-but-the-damn-post-office-is-deadly-slow-these-days-and-I-have-no-idea-when-or-if-this-will-even-get-to-you-but-my-fingers-are-crossed ones. Since DeJoy took over and started dismantling automated sorting machines and removing thousands of easy access mailboxes from convenient locations across the country, the postal service has become a joke. Cards that used to take three days to travel across the country now often arrive well after a week later. Last Christmas, many of our holiday cards arrived two weeks after I dropped them off inside an actual post office around December 10th, while some didn’t arrive at all. A package I mailed took two weeks to arrive at its destination, which is a little ridiculous considering that I could have driven the stupid box to my sister in Connecticut, handed it to her in person, and made in home in less than one week. And the package I sent that same day from Denver to Billings, Montana, made it in three weeks. It is a NINE HOUR DRIVE from Denver to Billings. Are you kidding me?
Now, none of this has to be an issue for me because I can afford to ship packages via Fed Ex or UPS and will undoubtedly be doing so this holiday season. But most people are not in my fortunate financial position. Some people still wait for their social security checks to arrive via snail mail (which is now even more snailish). Some seniors still send birthday cards to their grandchildren with cash enclosed, and I bet they have no idea that if they don’t mail them at least a week early their grandkids will be wondering if they were forgotten on their special day. And some people absolutely do not have access to or cannot afford to send packages via other carriers, so they will be stuck with this shitty situation.
Today, I read in an NPR article that “beginning on Oct. 3 and ending on Dec. 26, the postal service will temporarily increase prices on all commercial and retail domestic packages due to the holiday season.” So, if you want to send a gift to your sister in Connecticut for the holidays, I hope you have it picked out, holiday wrapped, and mailed by this Saturday or have already told your sister that she will get her Christmas gift maybe in time to open it at some point in 2022. Some people might have you believe that DeJoy’s changes to the postal service have made the service more cost effective, but they would be wrong. NPR also reported that “the postal service reported a loss of $3 billion for the quarter ending June 30, compared to the $2.2 billion in the previous year.”
As a kid who grew up sending handwritten letters to pen pals in Australia, Italy, Scotland, and Bahrain, in the early 1980s when sending a letter Air Mail to Australia took one business week, the idea of sending a birthday card across town and having it arrive 5-6 days later infuriates me. So, Louis DeJoy, if you’re listening, this is my Christmas postal service wish*: I would like to put you in a small box (can’t afford to mail a larger one with the new postal increase starting on Saturday) with a few air holes and send you first class mail across the country during the upcoming holiday season. Maybe a week or two or three, or who knows how long it could take in there, would make you rethink what you have done to this beloved and necessary institution. You may be gleeful you are slowly driving the USPS towards its demise because apparently you think it is a socialist program that doesn’t deserve to be supported by the government, but you, sir, are just the Grinch stealing Christmas from people who deserved better than you. May Santa leave coal in your stocking this year.
And that is the nicest thing I can say about that.
*I am not actually advocating putting this man in a box and mailing him across the country because that would be wreckless, dangerous, and wrong. Just consider this a thought experiment.
I was rifling through a stack of papers on the counter yesterday and came across a holiday letter that arrived in a card from some friends of ours around Christmas. Okay. I feel your sneer of judgment. Yes. I still have holiday mail on our kitchen counter. Guess what? We still have a broken, faux Christmas tree lying on the floor in the rec room too. I’m leaving it there at least until Easter to prove how very zen I can be in the face of ridiculous things. So there. Anyway, I opened the letter and reread it. It was, as most family holiday letters are, a beautifully composed, loving tribute to our friends’ apparently flawless, exceptional, decorous, loving children. I’m a natural skeptic, so I’ve always assumed children like the ones outlined in those letters are figments of fantasy, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and men who multitask…a charming idea, but a complete fabrication. Still, we get many letters just like that one every year, rife with phrases like Eagle Scout, straight A honor student, Varsity letter, State championships, class president, volunteer hours, and first place, which are aimed at making me believe that children like this exist in families all across this nation. It must be reality for some people.
Friends have asked me why I do not send out a letter with our Christmas cards. They figure that a writer should be at the top of the list of Persons Most Likely To Write A Holiday Letter. But I don’t because comparison is an ugly thing. We don’t have the kind of children who look good on paper. They’re off schedule and complicated and not in line with many other children their ages. In terms of learning, our children are classified as “atypical” and that doesn’t play well without lengthy and exhausting explanations. Even though we don’t write holiday letters, we think they’re awesome. We’ve just accepted that their beauty sometimes gets lost in the comparison game.
If I were to write a holiday letter, it realistically might contain paragraphs that read something like this:
Joe is thirteen and in seventh grade this year. He’s completely immersed in Pokémon and adores Japanese culture. He keeps asking when we can go to Tokyo. He used most of his Christmas money to buy Pokémon plush toys that he and his brother use in elaborate stop-motion video stories they are creating for their YouTube channel. Despite his ADHD and dyslexia, he’s making great progress at school. We are so proud that he’s using capitals and periods in his schoolwork on a more consistent basis these days. He’s still reversing his Bs and Ds, but we are hoping that he’ll have that mostly figured out by the time he’s writing college entrance essays. Joe has finally mastered the coordination and multiple steps to tie his own shoes now, which has taken one thing off my plate. He uses about 400 knots to make sure they don’t come untied, though, and that has created a different hassle as I now have to unknot his shoes each morning. Be careful what you wish for! After two years of private ski lessons, his core strength and coordination have improved enough that he has a mastery of most beginner slopes. We hope to have him exclusively skiing intermediate slopes by the end of next season. His favorite books are graphic novels, his favorite food is pasta, and his classmates call him “Puppy.” He never misses his nightly spa time, which mainly involves sitting in the bathtub while watching a continuing stream of Netflix videos on his iPad from across the room. Thank heavens he was gifted with great eyesight and the brains to know not to bring the iPad into the tub with him.
Luke is eleven now and in fifth grade. He is a talkative, class clown, and his teachers have initiated a rewards system to keep him reined in during class. So far it seems to be working because our last parent/teacher conference went off without tears. This year his decoding skills have gone off the charts and he is reading at a beginning of fourth grade level. He’s still struggling with fine motor skills and his pencil grip is downright bizarre, but his handwriting is bafflingly lovely. He loves to draw, write stories, build Legos, and watch episodes of Parks and Recreation. And, this year he began catching footballs successfully. He’s still two inches shy of being tall enough to ditch the booster seat in the car, but he’s getting there! His latest career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur/architect/engineer, but he’s planning to author books in his free time, which we think will make him quite well balanced. His sensory issues force him to sleep in a nest of blankets, pillows, and plushes, but he showers regularly, doesn’t eat in bed, and sleeps on the top bunk so we are reasonably sure there are no rodents up there with him. All is well and we are grateful.
Now, this holiday letter fodder might seem a bit hyperbolic, but overall it’s an accurate account of life with our exceptional sons. They are not straight A students. They are not athletes. They are not overachievers. They’re not on the Dean’s List. They’re not first chair in orchestra. They struggle a lot, work hard to catch up with other kids their age, and keep plugging away. They are, in every way I can see, damn near perfect human beings, emphasis on the human part. And I may never be able to write a holiday letter extolling the impressive scholastic or athletic achievements of their youth, but I could not be more proud of my young men.
I don’t begrudge any of our friends the joys of having children who are achieving at a high level already. After all, it’s a lot of work being a parent, and a smart, capable child who is excelling in many things can only do so with personal support and chauffeur services. My friends have earned the right to brag about their offspring. As for our boys, I suspect they are simply late bloomers. Sooner or later, all their hard work and dedication will pay off. And someday I’ll send out a holiday letter to share how far they have come. Our Christmas card with personal letter in 2035 might just blow your socks off.
It was with great joy today that we slayed the ghosts of Christmas past by dismantling our holiday decorations. Few things delight me more at the beginning of a new year than boxing up baubles and stashing stockings, organizing ornaments and gathering up garland. As tedious of a task as it is, paring down after a season of excess is exhilarating. I love putting things back to right, restoring order, and returning to ordinary time.
Some people love Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm. I am not one of those people. I do my best to live in the moment and revel in the excitement of my children during the season, but I could do without the trappings of the holidays. I’m happier without all the overdoing. I prefer to practice random gift giving and card sending. I like buying things for someone when the mood strikes me and not when the calendar says it’s time. I enjoy that smell of pine more in a summer forest while I rest in a hammock. If someone parked a red-bow Mercedes in my driveway on Christmas morning like the holiday ads imply some people do, that might increase my seasonal joy. Still, it probably wouldn’t stop me from grousing about the wasted hours putting up and taking down lights. Every Thanksgiving, as I turn my face toward New Year’s Day, I lie to myself as I repeat this mantra: “Five weeks of insanity and then it’s over.”
It’s never truly over, though, is it? We removed the dry, dead carcass of our Christmas tree from our house this afternoon. The drag marks from the front door made its disposal look like a crime scene. Its needles on our walkway told a grisly tale of one cut down in his prime, held hostage, tortured, and cruelly left to die far from home. I might be able to muster a bit of melancholy about it all if I wasn’t sure that I’ll be finding its errant needles in our home until next Christmas. It’s hard to miss a holiday that never truly leaves.