Tuesday, December 14, 2010
I had just gotten off the phone with my sister who’d been telling me about her youngest son, four-years-old. It was a typical kid-story for this time of year. He’d industriously taken a stack of newspaper ads, cut out all the pictures of things he wanted for Christmas, and taped them neatly to several pieces of paper, announcing this as his Christmas list. I didn’t ask exactly how long the list was, but judging from my sister’s tone of exasperation, it sounded lengthy.
“Then he walked around the house all morning saying, ‘This is what I’m getting for Christmas!’ as if it were a done deal!” I could almost see her eyes rolling over the phone. “Every day he has a new list. I told him ‘You better start thinking about giving, or I am canceling Christmas!’”
I snickered at this, a classic, and empty, parental threat.
But Christmas lists and letters to Santa are a childhood tradition, and during that afternoon’s run I found myself contemplating a “Letter to Santa” blog post, in which I requested from Santa the following: 1. My motivation, 2. Entries into my chosen lottery-impacted races (Cool and Miwok), and 3. A new bladder for my hydration pack, which, after a month of abandonment, I had re-discovered the day before was still leaking.
As my mind wandered, I started thinking more sincerely about what I really wanted in my life, what was important to me. I thought about choices I’d made and things I might have done differently. Suddenly, my humorous blog post had taken a decidedly more serious, and personal, tone. My letter to Santa began to sound more and more like a prayer.
Sometime later, I was walking a group of my students to after-school care when a 5th-grade girl posed a question to the group, “If you could be any age for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
Yes, these are the kinds of questions 5th-graders often pose, and frankly, I enjoy the conversations that ensue (at least, when we’re not in class).
I think my answer was something like 24. Maybe 27. “But with the knowledge and life-experience I have now,” I added hastily. I couldn’t commit to just one age. (Obviously, I take these questions entirely too seriously.)
“Mine is seven,” she announced confidently.
“Seven?” I was incredulous. I could barely even recall myself at that age.
“Yeah,” she nodded, “that’s the most fun age.”
I thought about the 2nd- graders I worked with in Homework Club after school. They were adorable, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to trade places with any of them.
Childhood looks blissfully simple to an adult, but even though their world is smaller, I think it’s at least as scary and confusing at times as ours. Maybe harder, even.
I saw a boy of about seven walking through the grocery store with tears silently streaming down his cheeks. At that particular moment, I felt very much in solidarity with this boy, and I found myself envious of his childhood right to cry in public without evoking comment. Children get a pass on public displays of emotion, while grownups are expected to contain them. Being a little contained has its obvious upsides, of course, but I still envy children sometimes.
I realize though, that my empathy for the grocery-store-boy was somewhat of an outlet for my own emotion. I so often feel like a child myself; it makes sense that they can be the ones with whom I frequently identify and connect.
Their ability to speak in simple terms, to show every single thing they’re feeling, lies in direct contrast to the complexities and restrictions of adulthood. Seeing them run around the schoolyard with their hearts on their sleeves reassures me that others do indeed feel wrought by the difficulties of daily life, as I do. And at the times that I can offer them any comfort, it tends to lighten my own burdens.
Perhaps this is one of the benefits of maturity? The ability to empathize allows us to connect with others. It keeps us from feeling quite so alone in this world.
My husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas today. The reality is that I don’t really need anything. My sister is right – I should think about giving. (Otherwise I may have to cancel Christmas on myself!)
I’m not talking about that traditional “volunteer-your-time” or “give presents” kind of giving. I’m thinking more about emotional giving. I feel so constantly barraged by the neediness of those around me, and yet, I am equally bereft. I know from experience that giving comfort can be likewise comforting to the giver. St. Francis was right, I’d say: In giving, we receive.
So it seems I went from Christmas list, to prayer, to New Year’s resolution all at once. That’s not unusual of me, actually. But regardless of label, “giving” seems to sum up my Christmas wish rather nicely– To let go of my child-like needs that are so self-focused, and instead embrace my adult abilities to empathize and connect, to comfort, to give. To love.
I’m not sure exactly how these thoughts will manifest themselves into actions. I suppose I’ll keep them at the forefront of my mind and simply wait for opportunity. I don’t want it to be merely a nice idea, and in this case, I think I’m the only one that can make my wish come true.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll call my sister to ask what I should get my nephew for Christmas. (Assuming it isn’t canceled, of course.)