He sees you when you’re sleeping

Those were nightmare-worthy words to my four year-old self.

My five, six, seven, and eight year-old self, too.

I was scared to death of Santa.

Like many children, I barely slept on Christmas Eve. There was anticipation for the gifts, don’t get me wrong, but I took literally that line from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Tucked tightly in bed, my ears were tuned for the slightest floorboard creak or gift wrap rustle that would indicate his arrival. I worried that in addition to placing a sleigh-load of shiny packages around the tree downstairs, he’d sneak into my room and hover over my bed. Several times that night my eyes would pop open, staring through the soft glow of my nightlight to see if it glinted off the white trim of his furry coat. If I had to pee, I would hold it. There was no getting out of bed.

By the way, Jesus’ omnipotence was just as terrifying to the younger me. You’d think I was a deviant with so much to hide. Nope. Just a freaked out goody two shoes. I can only imagine what would have happened if Elf on the Shelf existed during my childhood: a Xanax prescription for the month of December.

I cringed when my mom took me to the mall, and begged her to avoid the lines of rambunctious, sugarcoated children eager to take photos with the jolly ol’ fella. In retrospect, I was probably doing her a favor.

Roving Santa in a department store was the worst. At least seated, I knew where he was. His ho-ho-ho-ing from aisles away was like an air raid siren. Hearing it, I would frantically search for places to take cover.

One time I toddled myself right out of Sears, leaving my mom hurrying behind me to catch up. I had learned the hard way that cowering behind her wasn’t any use. Santa — also true for the Easter Bunny, Disney characters (Disneyworld wasn’t exactly the happiest place on earth), and pretty much anyone who was tall, loud, and approached me like I couldn’t wait to greet them — would see me hiding and think I was playing a game.

Don’t you see the anguish in my eyes?
Dear God, I do not want your candy canes!!!!

For all the terror, I loved Christmas, and still do. The flickering lights and yummy cookies; the stories of peace, love and good cheer.

I’ll leave you with my first, and perhaps only, photo with Santa ever, taken when I was 13. Note the attractive braces and ridiculous perm; clearly it was the 80’s.

I gifted this to my mom that year as a somewhat-serious attempt to laugh at a joke everyone else already found funny. It has graced the mantel ever since.

Merry Christmas from Santa and me to all those who celebrate!

Santa baby

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My love affair with Ann Patchett

I first discovered author Ann Patchett in the pre-Kindle days of 2001 when I saw people so engrossed in her book Bel Canto that they nearly missed their subway stops.

Moments after buying my own copy, I became a fangirl: a heart-shaped photo of her in the high school locker of my mind.

What I love most are the interesting and complicated characters she creates, who you are curious about even if you don’t like them very much. If you hang on for the ride, there is a secret prize at the end when you discover how all of them are connected into a larger story you didn’t know even existed.

In between you learn about encyclopedia-worthy topics — the Amazon jungle, opera, magic — that you can then discuss at cocktail parties as if you are an expert.

When I heard that she was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross (don’t tell Ann, but I love her even more), my heart fluttered. Thank God no one was around to see the stupid grin on my face for the whole 40 minutes of the interview.

IMG_0009.JPGThey were discussing her latest book, a series of essays called, This is the story of a happy marriage, and I promptly reserved it at my local library. It took much longer to read, because first the library lost my reservation, and then I forgot to re-reserve it. I know, I know, some fangirl I am.

A year later, I was reminded to pick it up when David Sedaris recommended it on his book tour, referring to her essay, “The Getaway Car,” as a primer for every writer. (He’s right, by the way.)

The next day I finally went back to the library, and curled up with it that night.

I absolutely loved it, then hated it, and then loved it again with only slight twinges of jealousy.

Put simply: non-fiction is too close to home.

I can happily immerse myself in fiction, because I don’t write it. There are no comparisons to draw. Some writers read similar genres to their own for inspiration. When I do it, I can lose track of my voice and start using theirs instead.

And while I adore Ann’s tone and style, their polished perfection can add unnecessary pressure when I’m stuck in the third round of revisions.

It’s clear that she had hard years — her divorce, her childhood, waitressing at T.G.I. Friday’s — but the resulting essays made every misstep sound effortless.

The writer in me — green with envy while reading about her landing a publisher, and traveling to exotic places to write essays for the best magazines — wanted her to swim around in the muck a little more to make me feel better about my own messiness.

More than that, I wondered if I could ever summit the same Best-selling Author – Sought-After Speaker – Renowned Personality at ease with life and her place in it mountain. Man, does it seem steep from here.

I was impressed, and I kind of wanted to gauge her eyes out.

Then sanity kicked in, and I was reminded what I’ve heard from every successful writer, artist and businessperson — people make it when they never give up.

Or put another way, giving up gets you nowhere fast. Or put yet another way, jealousy is a good indicator of what you really want, so you better stick with it.  (Maybe that last one was just for me.)

Ann returned to the blank page every day, focused on her dream, and in time something amazing happened. Then rather than keeping the experience to herself, she shared what she learned with all of us.

Yep, still love her.

 

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What to do when someone’s in crisis

I really thought I knew how to be helpful when someone was facing something scary. Turns out I know less than I thought I did.

Being the one in a hospital bed is very different than being the worried loved one sitting next to it.

In the last two months since my mom’s diagnosis, I’ve been the recipient of so much love and support, some of it coming from places and people I wasn’t expecting. I have them to thank for these tips.

 

1) What to say

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I believe in you.”
  • “You are strong.”
  • Nothing.

It’s easier to say, “I’m here if you want to talk,” than it is to actually be that person. Most of us want desperately to say something, the right thing, anything that will help our loved ones feel better about their situation.

If you really want to help, do a lot of listening.

And if the person is silent — this is important — that doesn’t mean you need to fill the silence. It means the opposite. Sit there for as long as possible, and let us speak when we are ready.

The fact that we aren’t talking means that we trust you, and don’t feel like we have to take care of you. That is a really good thing.

~~ My friend, writer David Hicks, provided another suggestion. Ask, “What’s it like?” Most people in crisis want to share what’s happening, but don’t want to be a burden on others. This question may open the door.

 

2) What not to say

  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “You must be relieved.”

People often see another’s tragedy from their own point of view.

What do they see? Unbearable discomfort. Their own, because the person in front of them is hurting, grieving, not who they were the last time they saw them. Many freak out by other people’s pain, so much so that they need to say something SO THEY FEEL BETTER (not the person actually in crisis).

This isn’t about you.

In fact, those four words should be what you say…to yourself. Your wish that we’ll be fine or relieved that our loved one isn’t suffering any more is only your wish. Pay attention to how we talk about what’s happening. Repeat our words back to us if you need something to say. Or say nothing.

If you are worried that saying nothing isn’t helpful enough, please know what a difference it makes, how much it has meant to me. You may also want to repeat those four words to yourself again.

 

3) What to do

  • Show up.
  • Do something without asking.
  • Check in regularly to say hi and don’t expect an answer.

Your first reaction may be to ask, “What can I do? or “What do you need?” and chances are high that unless a specific job has surfaced in the last five minutes your loved one will have no idea what to tell you. They are likely so immersed in what’s happening that thinking about what they need is a luxury of time and energy that they don’t have.

When people asked me, I said, “I wish I knew; I’m sure I could use the help.”

If you really want to help, be prepared to come up with your own answer.

Three examples that blew me away recently:

On the day my mom was admitted into the hospital, I was beyond worried and overwhelmed. I sent texts to a couple close friends as I headed to the emergency room, and within 30 minutes three of them showed up. There were tender hugs, advice when asked for it, and friendly faces when she and I needed them the most.

By the next day I could email more people, and the love kept coming. One colleague left me a voicemail saying she was thinking of me, to not worry about calling her back. She then called again a few days after that and said the same thing. I could feel her support without anything required by me to keep it coming.

Saving the best for last. A close friend from Washington, DC couldn’t show up in person because I was with my family in upstate New York, so later that week there was a knock on the front door of my parents’ house. Two brimming baskets were delivered by the talented local chef Leslie Robinson with Culinary Accommodations — Mason jars filled with homemade, nourishing soup enough to feed an army.¬†Some of the soup is still in the freezer two months later. I couldn’t eat it all!

When I thanked my friend for buying these, she said, “You’re busy taking care of everyone else right now. These soups are to take care of you.”

Every time I heat up a bowl, even now when my mom is home doing well so far with chemotherapy, and life is relatively back to normal, I feel comforted.

I had no idea what I needed. These friends had to figure it out, and I’ll be forever grateful that they did.
 
 

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