Relatively Speaking

There’s the tiptoeing around in the early morning, the absurdly quiet sex late at night, going to restaurants you avoid like the mall on black Friday, searching for your Tupperware containers that happen to be suffocating underneath your pots and pans.

There are more than 24 hours of driving time between me and my family, my parents are all retired, and we have the first grandchild, a giggly 2 year old with blonde curls. This means that they visit us frequently and for long stretches of time spanning anywhere from two weeks to two months. It is a long time to silently cringe as your child is fed all forms of unnaturally sweet confection on a regular basis, and to feel the immense pressure of entertaining or at the very least being around your family member constantly.

Old family patterns can creep back into your relationship and control your responses without you even noticing. As the youngest sibling, the “sweet” one, the automatic reaction I have is to be amicable, accommodating, and to absorb endless amounts of criticism disguised as advice or as innocent questions with a good attitude.
When I begin to sigh heavily and feel my words snapping like fresh peapods, I take a little time out for myself.

I think about the fact that two of my grandparents died less than twenty years from the age that my parents are now. I remember that soon enough I’ll be dropping off them off at the airport and will return home to an empty house, going back to the long mornings and afternoons with no adults to talk to. Soon enough Sierra will be asking “where’s grandpa?” And he will already be hundreds of miles away.

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Someday I will say goodbye for the last time. Maybe then I will remember the irritating little habits, the times they angered or upset me, but those memories will look like tiny crumbs compared to the enormous feast that makes up the soul and presence of this person; this beloved family member. As in all things, looking at a situation with a telescope rather than a microscope can help us to move forward in peace in our relationships with the ones that raised us, the ones that loved and knew us the longest. In this way we put our egos in check and choose grace and love to guide us in making the most of our time together with our relatives.

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Breaking the Tradition of Gift Giving and Recieving

We can go out into the woods, into a field, into the back yard to lay down on the lawn and fix our gaze up at the clouds rolling under the sky, we can still the mind just enough to hear the tiny whisper coming from the heart. This solitary stillness is important as a regular practice if we are to lead the lives we were meant to. There is too much business and external messages in the space of our regular lives of tasks and routines.

If we listen carefully, we will know what our heart is saying to us.

Sometimes what the heart tells is difficult to truly know. Often it just begins with an urging, or a reluctance, a joy or a sadness. This is to be expected- this is the language of the heart.

Once we receive its message, the next task is to hold it in our conscious mind and give ourselves the time and space to process it. We can always picture the message as we lay down to bed and request some guidance through our dreams or in our waking lives.

I heard something from my heart recently, and I recognized that it was a struggle that seemed silly, could be perceived as selfish and at the same time difficult to resolve. There are always matters which arise that present a challenge for us to reconcile.

My message was: I’m stressed about the upcoming slew of birthdays and Christmas that’s coming upon me. Why? I asked again. This time the answer came to me immediately. The presents. Presents are supposed to bring joy for both the gift giver and the receiver. There’s a whole slew of etiquette around gifts, and millions of entire issues of magazines dedicated to the tradition. There’s also enormous social pressure to comply with this practice.

I thought about calling this post Breaking Free from Expectations or Bowing Out of Obligation Gracefully, but the decision to decide to stop giving and receiving presents is really kind of a radical way of doing those things. It’s definitely not a simple decision to make, and unlike going vegan it’s not an easy thing to read about online. I personally am the only person I know to do this. Here is my reasoning.

I believe at a time long ago, when people didn’t have much, gifts were often desperately needed or perhaps were items that were handmade with love in a way that made them family heirlooms. The items gifted were used carefully and passed down, allowing a few to several generations of practical use. These days, most everything you can go out and buy was made in a factory or a sweatshop in China for very little pay, with cheap materials in a fast process that makes the item completely disposable and likely unsafe. This modern process has allowed people to buy many items for many people, for many occasions. What happens as a result of this? We have more stuff that we likely have no use for, we throw more of it away, more ends up in landfills, and we support cruel industries that cause destruction to the planet.

At first I thought of alternatives to this pattern. I could make everyone handmade gifts, yes, but not everyone can benefit from the same thing. Sending out little gift baskets filled with soaps and lotions made with organic ingredients and recyclable packaging would be very pleasing and useful to me, but probably would only be useful to a handful of my family members. Because of modern conveniences, people become attached to their particular brand or product for self-care, for food, for most everything that is consumed. Even their tastes in décor and fashion has become highly specific and individualized. There’s always Amazon wish lists so that you can be sure to get the person exactly what they need, or gift cards so they can pick for themselves exactly what they would like. But I had to ask myself, how is this any different than giving someone an envelope of cash in exchange for them giving you an envelope of cash? It’s completely soulless. On this level of monetary exchange I would always be the weaker party, as I have no income besides what I make from selling random things on EBay which puts me at the lowest income level of anyone else in my entire family or friend group.

Other solutions are donating to each other’s charities which is wonderful, or asking to only receive “experience gifts.” At first I thought that would be a wonderful solution, but so many “experiences” that I would want for my family had only one gift-type option: the gift of membership. These memberships to places like museums and parks were upwards of $75. I just didn’t feel comfortable asking for these in lieu of physical presents, as I realistically would only visit these places once or twice a year due to geographical distance.

“But it’s the thought that counts.” Yes I agree. So here is my thought on the practice. What I would honestly love to receive is a letter, or more preferably a phone call from anyone who cares about me on my birthday. Ditto for Christmas although I’m not Christian in the least and the holiday causes a lot of grief for me (the consumerism, hustle and bustle, going here and there and all the dang traditions that it forces). So to be honest I could care less about Christmas. In turn, I will make a commitment to calling ALL close friends and family on their birthday and Christmas to have a real conversation with them, to connect with them. If by any chance some of them are physically with me visiting, then going out and doing an activity they enjoy while we spend time together is what I will give. To me this is what is important and meaningful, the most precious gift.

So I’m announcing to everyone that I’m bowing out of the traditional form of gift receiving and giving. Not all of my family knows yet, some that do are understanding (let’s be honest- I’m already kind of weird so it’s not a huge surprise, I’m just getting more “out there” than I already was). Some are in complete denial and insist that they give me gifts anyway. That is fine. I will receive the gifts with a recognition that this person is in their own way trying to please me (though it’s strange that they would do what I asked them not to do to accomplish this) and they will get donated to a charity where they will be of use to others less fortunate than me. This may sound harsh but I know that I don’t want to add any more objects to my home, as I’ve only become happier in making the decision to let more and more items go.

From what little I could find online of people that have made this lifestyle choice, it seems like this takes a few years for your family to get used to. For me, that’s ok as I’m not trying to shove my ideas down everyone’s throat, I’m just making a change that will make my life more in line with my personal values.

As for my daughter, that’s something my husband and I will need to discuss further. I’m loving the idea of “Something they want, something they need; Something to wear, something to read” from us and a limit of one gift per family member.

This blog post has turned into a guide for bowing out of gift giving and receiving, but could also be useful as encouragement to bow out of anything that doesn’t make the heart happy. So let us continue to reflect, consider and take action to live a life filled with joy and peace.