If you’re feeling generous this holiday season and wondering how to make the most of your charitable giving, head on over to my recent post for All Over Albany and learn how to be a great do-gooder. Hint: give from the heart, give with trust and respect, give regularly, give unrestricted donations, give money instead of things (usually) and… ask your chosen nonprofit org what they need. No bizplaining or hysteria about “overhead” necessary :)
I’d been itching to make an advent calendar ever since seeing a few examples on Reading My Tea Leaves. I appreciate the advent period as a seasonal call to contemplation and anticipation, even without belonging to an organized religion. So I tried to create a simple calendar with some really easy things we could do as a family, or that I could do alone, to savor the season. At first I laid out 25 new exciting Christmas-y activities to do and then realized that sounded miserable and overwhelming. So I swapped some out for things we’d already be doing, like reading The Snowy Day or making donations to causes close to our hearts. We’re halfway through the calendar and I’m happy to report that we also just absolutely bailed on some of these. “Have an indoor picnic” sounded easy because it’s literally just eating dinner on the floor, but nope, it didn’t happen. We read exactly three sentences of The Polar Express before Clark requested a book about dinosaurs. I haven’t send out our Christmas cards yet and we’ve switched some other ones around too. It’s delightfully low-pressure.
Clark is only two, so we have at least another Christmas before he’ll understand what this all is, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between acts of charity and acts of justice. So many of us enter the holiday season with beautiful intentions of “giving back”, but many of us don’t quite get it right. Consider the shift from thinking of a donation to Toys for Tots as a “good deed” to understanding it to be a small step towards a fairer, more just world. A reminder that it’s usually not about a family being “less fortunate” than it is about structural racism or other discrimination along with a broken economy, health care system and government. I’ll admit that I’ve really enjoyed filling the Christmas wish lists of some of our neighbors, but I’m trying to see it not as an exceptional act of generosity but as the only responsible way to move through this gift-giving season. Once I began to see my role in those forces that contribute to “less fortunate” situations, I had to start shifting away from the “good deeds” mentality to one more akin to reparations and justice-building actions. So, all of that to say, this has been on my mind as we move through the holiday giving season.
Back to the list. Here are our advent calendar activities. Family ideas with a toddler can be tough, so some of them are just for Chris and I, some are for all three and some are just for me. I think I’d love an advent calendar with ideas just for me, but I’ll save that for another year.
Go to a holiday market
Dry orange ornaments
Deck the halls
A midweek holiday feast
Have an indoor picnic
Buy a Christmas tree
Buy gifts for neighborhood friends
Read or watch Polar Express in pajamas
Watch a Christmas movie
Bake Christmas cookies
Feed the birds
Read Snowy Day
Buy extra fresh veggies and donate
Have a phone-free evening
Donate to provide life-saving medical care around the world, including in Yemen
Sit by the fire
Nothing yet! Something festive. Something leftover from earlier in the month. Cookies for Santa. Staying up late to look at the Christmas tree.
Do you have any advent calendar ideas or traditions to share? As I mentioned above, this one borrows heavily in both style and substance from the ones that Erin has shared over on Reading My Tea Leaves (an updated clutter-free one, a peace and justice one and her original). I love their simplicity and thoughtfulness.
Note: I found this essay in my drafts folder and remember now that I didn’t post it because it felt too mushy, too saccharine, too much. Looking back on it several months later (Clark turned two in late July), it feels just right. He already seems much older than he was this summer, but still just as sweet.
Well, my sweet boy, you are two. I stop myself every time I think, "How can you be two years old already!" because, in fact, you are so obviously and perfectly two. You are our best buddy, our silly trickster, our early morning snuggler, our beautiful, wild two-year-old boy.
Once again, your birthday has come around and I'm frantically searching my journals, my phone, scraps of paper and feeling the inadequacy of my notes. No amount of words, no number of poems could adequately describe the depth of my love for you, Clark Wilder. I knew we'd love you, I knew it would be hard, but I didn't know I'd love you this much and I certainly didn't know how hard it would sometimes be. These are the longest days and shortest years of our lives. I wrote a note on my phone this year: Everything is harder now, everything is sweeter now. That's how every day feels.
You fill us with such love and tenderness; your laugh brings me to my knees with its beauty and the feel of your little juice-covered, sticky little hands in mine is a much-needed salve.
You wake us up with a kiss, taking my face in your hands and saying "Wake Mommy!" You love hiding and sneaking up on people and playing with your bear, puppy, lion, froggie and ducky. You love that darned Peppa Pig and, of course, Elmo and Curious George. Your new favorite is the Wild Kratts and their creature adventures. I think you fall asleep every night dreaming of popsicles. You know your colors and a lot of numbers and animals. You look up for airplanes and clouds and "hoppy birdies".
You pick up rocks and sticks and jump in every puddle you see. I don't know if you look like me anymore or just your daddy, but you look damn good. You have friends at school and at night pretend to call them all on the phone, or the remote control or sometimes through a secured line on a calculator. You color and make snakes with Play Dough and climb and jump on everything.
You are the sweetest boy I've ever met. Thank you for being you.
I like to think of the last photo as Clark’s face when he learns to read and eventually finds this sappy love note from his mom :)
Early yesterday morning, I took pause to marvel at how deliciously beautiful Clark is. How delightfully snuggly. We were spending an early morning watching cartoons, because I was too bleary eyed to do anything else at that hour. “Mommy, sit here. Mommy, come too.” He absentmindedly played with my rings and snuggled up as PBS Kids rolled in the background and the world started to wake up.
A few hours later, we were both in tears in the back of my car. He wouldn’t sit in his car seat; I was out of tricks and bribes and patience. I lost my cool, regained it and repeated that cycle a few times as I navigated the surprises and monotony of toddler negotiation. When I finally gave up and just sat next to him, upset and defeated, Clark touched my cheek and said, “I’m sorry, Mommy.” My first thought was, “If you were really sorry you would have gotten in your car seat 20 minutes ago ya little punk!” My immediate next thought was, “Oh. So this is parenthood.” Your child breaking your heart and putting it back together again and again.
Drop off at daycare was harder than it had been in months. Clark didn’t want me to leave, didn’t want to let go, wouldn’t calm down. I finally got to work 30 minutes late and right in time to walk into our weekly staff meeting and take my place at the head of the conference table. I was exhausted and scattered and not sure what other emotion to feel.
When I picked Clark up in the afternoon, him and his bestie were each rocking little baby dolls. His teacher said, “Clark is just the sweetest. He’s so kind. When someone is upset, he always goes over and asks “Are you ok?” and pats their back.” My heart swelled. A few minutes later, we started another round of get-in-the-car-seat diplomacy.
That’s it. No conclusion drawn, no life lesson learned. Just a vignette, a blur of the ups and downs of life lately. So much joy, so much frustration. In an effort to beat the writer’s block of the past few years, I thought I’d share a little with you :)
I paused in my car to hear the end of a story on All Things Considered with a recording of young children crying at a detention center. I heard the sounds of their trauma, the terror in their cries, the heartbreak and heartrage of their parents and the wild-eyed frantic desperation their mamas felt when their babies were stolen from them.
I paused again on my walk inside, up the beautiful new path we paid to have built to our door, in the backyard of the home we own, in a city where we feel safe, close to family, with heat and air conditioning and clean water and stability. Where my ethnicity and race and language and education afford me privileges that others are systematically denied.
I stepped inside. My husband and toddler greeted me with their handsome grins and hugs. Clark was having a tough night. He spent much of it crying and whining and tantruming, which is unusual for him. For a fleeting moment I thought, "Here I am, enduring my son's inconsolable cries just like those mothers seeking asylum." What a foolish thought that was. No, this was nothing like what those mamas at the border are facing. Clark was crying because he wanted a pop. He wasn't crying from fear or terror or trauma. He wasn't afraid for his body. He wasn't wondering where his mommy or daddy was. He wasn't crying for human touch that the guardians of the stolen border children aren't allowed to provide. He wanted dessert, that's all. When he eventually calmed down, Chris and I quietly poured ourselves a drink and the three of us set out for an evening walk around our neighborhood. We weren't afraid that anyone would take Clark from us or that one of us would be arrested or deported. We weren't fearful for the safety of our own bodies, or imagining the bullets or handcuffs or humiliation that might come upon us. We were a young family on a walk, nothing to see here.
How do you reconcile your immense gratitude for your life with your visceral, shared pain of the world? I'm having trouble finding that edge and balance. I still fret over picking out new couches to brighten our living room. I still concern myself with my weight and my skin and my clothes. I'm worried when all Clark eats is cheese and toast and strawberries. I admonish myself for not having planned a family summer vacation sooner because all of the charming Airbnb rentals are booked. Flip that: I have a home and a living room and money to buy couches and cheese and toast and strawberries and paid vacation time and the luxury to still worry about all of those things.
I guess what I'm saying is, there is a lot of pain in this world and today I'm haunted by the cries of babies who have been torn apart from their mamas and daddies. I hear the pleas of brave parents who risked everything they had to save their babies, to leave their homeland in search of safety and freedom.
You know what to do. Find an organization you trust who is doing the work to end this crisis and give. Give more than you think you can and please, for the love of progress, don't complain about their overhead expenses or employee salaries. Listen, love & give. If you need a nudge in the right direction, Together Rising has been doing an incredible job researching and connecting with on-the-ground organizations to pass through 100% of the money they raise. You can also donate through ActBlue and have your donation split among several trustworthy orgs. Cup of Jo published a great piece dispelling myths and suggesting ways to help. Families Belong Together is organizing non-violent actions and rallies as well as encouraging support for organizations on the ground.