The Perfect Holiday Gift – 11 ways to give our presence (even from a distance)

The past three years, my husband and I have lived deep in the woods where cell phone service is spotty at best. There’s only one place in our home where I can reliably get a good signal. No more chatting while I unload the dishwasher, cook dinner, or put away laundry. To avoid the frustration of a dropped call, I must sit down and simply converse. The situation has forced me to experience the joy of being present.

This holiday season, most people need our presence more than our presents. Though it will probably be from a distance, being present offers the gift of our most precious time, energy, and attention.

11 ways to give our presence this holiday season ~

1. Let Go of Expectations. Even without a pandemic, the holiday season can struggle to live up to our commercially-driven expectations and standards. This year, instead of thinking how we wish things were, let’s focus on enjoying life exactly as it is.

2. Reach Out. Because of the virus, many people will spend the holidays alone. While we might be tempted to pull the covers over our head until next year, we need to reach out to people. A cheerful conversation remembering old times and looking ahead can do wonders for everyone’s spirit.

3. Really Listen. Often when someone is talking, we’re waiting to get in our two cents. Conversations require some back and forth, but don’t be afraid of a little silence. Instead of thinking of our response, we can take that time to process what was said and respond by asking questions and clarifying the other person’s words.

4. Pay Close Attention. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own world we don’t really see the people we care about. Taking time to notice subtle, non-verbal communication helps us understand other people’s feelings and gives us a chance to offer genuine compassion and empathy.

5. Cut Out Distractions. We all know the feeling of talking to someone who is clearly focused on something more important than your conversation. To really connect with someone, we must eliminate distractions so we can give them the gift of our full attention.

6. Dive Deep. This year we won’t be attending any big holiday parties where small talk is most appropriate. Take advantage of smaller gatherings and phone calls to enjoy some conversation that goes beyond the weather and typical surface exchanges.

7. Make Eye-Contact. At least those annoying masks don’t cover our eyes. Looking at others warmly shows we are engaged and interested. Whether meeting in-person, on Facetime, or a Zoom call, eye contact is a powerful way to demonstrate our care and respect.

8. Choose Mindful Activities. There’s nothing wrong with having a family movie night, but it might not be the best way to spend quality time. Try taking a walk together, playing a game, making a craft, or just talking over some hot chocolate.

9. Tune-In to the Senses. One of the best ways to immediately be more present is to become aware of our senses. Focusing on what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel can get us out of our heads and into the moment. Twinkling lights, holiday music, a glowing fire, and delicious treats are all sure ways to enjoy being present.

10. Lend a Hand. If we listen and pay attention, we often find there is something we can do to help others. When at our home, both of our sons-in-law are wonderful at noticing what needs to be done and quietly doing it. Our presence is always appreciated when we lighten the load for someone else.

11. Give Love. It’s been a long year, and we’re all worn out by such unprecedented events. The gift of our presence is a sincere and thoughtful way to put more love into the world this holiday season, and that’s a gift everybody can use. §

Question of the Week: What tip do you have for being more present with yourself or others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Wishing you a week filled with holiday presence. Merry Christmas!

Please subscribe to The Simple Swan by clicking the Follow button. The Simple Swan is on Twitter at 1SimpleSwan.

3 Things the Pandemic Can Teach About Facing Our Troubles

“It’s still pitch black out,” my husband said. He knows I don’t like to drive in the dark, but I needed to get to southern Illinois by late morning. I climbed in the frosty car before sunrise and replied, “The good news is it’s only going to get lighter.”

My words hung in the air like a promise as I cautiously drove through the dark woods on the hilly, winding roads of Indiana. I heard a voice on the radio say this about the pandemic, “Things look dark right now, but there’s hope on the horizon.” Looking east, streaks of orange and pink glowed just below the bare tree line.

It occurred to me that our best reaction to the Coronavirus could provide a lesson in how to face any dark time in our lives by taking this three-step approach.

Face Facts. After a few months at my first job out of college, I reluctantly went to my dad in tears. I had racked up almost $300 on my American Express card and had no way to pay it. He looked at my budget and immediately saw it was unrealistic. He helped me make a more honest one and gave the same good advice I’d heard dozens of times growing up, “You always have to face the facts, kid.”

Similarly with the Coronavirus, we have to face the facts. As of this week, more than a quarter of a million people in the United States have now died from Covid-19, and the number of new infections is setting records every day. We also know there are scientifically proven things we can do to keep the virus from spreading so vigorously.

Do What You Can. When life gets dicey, I always turn to The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer, learned from my mother-in-law when I was a young mom, immediately centers me and helps me focus on what I can and can’t change when facing a problem.

As we continue to make tough decisions during this pandemic, we must separate wisdom from nonsense and have the courage to do what we can. The Center for Disease Control is still making these recommendations: Stay home when possible. Wear a mask in public settings. Wash hands often. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. If you must go somewhere, stay at least six feet away from others. We can’t control the virus, but we can do things to help protect ourselves and others.

Look on the Bright Side. A relative’s home in Georgia was recently destroyed by a 16,000 pound tree in the aftermath of a hurricane. She and her husband have since been living in a small hotel room with their dog and cat while dealing with insurance companies and all the stress of having their life suddenly turned upside down in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the first time the young couple has been dealt a crummy hand, but I’m struck by their gratitude no one was hurt and their faith things will eventually fall back into place.

No matter the situation, once we have faced the facts and done all we can, the only thing left to do is be hopeful. As I reached the interstate, the radio reported promising news of a Coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s words sounded like fatherly advice, “Just hold on a little longer.”

In 1650, Thomas Fuller wrote what has become a well-known and encouraging proverb, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Merging onto the highway, the sky was impossibly blue and the sun shone so brightly above the horizon, I reached for my sunglasses. 🙂

Question of the Week: How do you keep looking on the bright side during the pandemic or when facing personal troubles? Please leave your response in the comments. Wishing you a bright and healthy week!

Please subscribe to The Simple Swan by clicking the Follow button. The Simple Swan is on Twitter at 1SimpleSwan.

A Corona Wedding – 5 simple lessons for this mother-of-the-bride

My daughter was a Corona-bride. In late spring she and her fiancĂ© cancelled their September wedding due to uncertainty about the pandemic. I wasn’t too disappointed, as the initial plan was to postpone the ceremony until next year.

A few weeks later my daughter excitedly told me they were getting married at city hall. In accordance with CDC guidelines, there would be a small outdoor gathering afterwards with just a few people who could easily and safely attend.

The picture I’d held in my mind of my daughter walking down the aisle on her wedding day surrounded by family and friends faded from view. A civil ceremony followed by toasts from a few masked guests wasn’t the vision I had for my little girl’s wedding.

This practical mother-of-the-bride secretly began lamenting a fairy tale wedding complete with an orchestra playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D and white doves released the moment my daughter said, “I do.”

I don’t know what got into me, but I was a tad difficult – a real MOB. I credit the bride’s younger brother for snapping me out of it by offering millennial advice like, “It’s not your wedding, Mom.”

Yesterday my beautiful daughter married the love of her life, a wonderful man whom I adore. Their wedding day is over, and it was simply perfect.

Let me wipe away my tears of joy and share five lessons in simplicity I learned from the experience.

1. Accept What Is – As much as I wished a pandemic didn’t upend my daughter’s wedding plans, it did. The Stoics embrace the idea of Amor Fati, or love of fate. Epictetus said, “Do not seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.”

2. Relinquish Control – I admit I’m a control freak. In my mind, I’m only trying to help. The problem is it undermines others’ abilities and shows a lack of trust. My daughter’s wedding day was absolutely lovely without me pulling all the strings. Pandemics remind us how foolish it is to believe we are ever really in control.

3. Manage Emotions – There’s a reason people cry at weddings – it’s freaking emotional. Milestones in our lives, and that of our children, bring out all the feels. When emotions are surging, remember to take a deep breath and make sure you’re not over-reacting to a fleeting feeling.

4. Banish Comparisons – Thanks to social media, Pinterest, reality wedding shows, bridal magazines and a slew of Hallmark movies, there’s no shortage of ideas about the perfect wedding. Actually, doesn’t that apply to just about everything in life these days? As Theodore Roosevelt wisely warned, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

5. Remember What’s Important  – There are few people the pandemic hasn’t affected – some much more than others. Yet in many ways, it’s reminded us what’s really important. Health, not wealth. People, not things. The marriage, not the wedding. Sometimes we need to step back, see the big picture, and ask ourselves what truly matters.

From this day forward, do I vow to remember the lessons I learned from my daughter’s wedding? I do. §

Unmasked – the joy of removing masks of another kind

Donning a face mask in public has become second nature now. At first, I double-checked I put it on correctly. I didn’t want to be like the suave politician who slipped one elastic ear band over his head while the other one dangled below his chin in an epic mask fail. Most of us now wear our masks like a pro.

Then again, most of us have had a lot of practice wearing masks of another kind.

Masks I’ve worn include the good girl, dutiful daughter, tireless teacher and martyr mom. My mask said strong, when I felt like mush. It said perfect, when things were anything but. All too often the mask I wore said yes, when I should have said, “No. Nope. Not a chance.”

Author Rick Warren wrote, “Wearing a mask wears you out. Faking it is fatiguing. The most exhausting activity is pretending to be what you know you aren’t.”

As a young woman, I learned to put on another type of mask in the form of make-up. Cover, girl! For most of my life, I rarely left the house without a light coat of six cosmetics. I came to view putting on make-up as something classy women do to hide the real deal and present something more acceptable.

Then there is the full-body mask I wore in the name of fashion. Uncomfortable styles. Unnecessary details. Unpractical fabrics. Unaffordable trends. All in an attempt to say something about myself through what I wore on the outside, instead of who I was on the inside.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before designer face masks were in vogue. Louis Vuitton masks are already sold out. Marc Jacobs has a $100 mask available. Givenchy sells one for $590. Yes, you read that right.

As George Benson sang, “We’re lost in a masquerade.” 

The face masks we are asked to wear now aren’t meant to make a statement or hide behind. They serve a practical purpose – to protect ourselves and others from Covid-19. They aren’t cute or comfortable, but they are necessary for the time being.

I wear a simple mask we bought in bulk. When I put one on, I notice my body language becomes more important. I move in a more intentional way. My word choice and tone, though muffled, become more precise. I’m more aware of communicating through eye contact.

The mask somehow intensifies my desire to live more authentically. I’m seeing my bare face without judgment. I’m sparing my hair from the daily assault of styling tools. I’m wearing my most comfortable clothing. I’m moving through life at my own pace and listening to my own voice – which always leads to more joy.

I’ve spent much of my life masquerading as one thing or another. Yet under the cover of a pandemic and, ironically, a face mask, I’m becoming more and more comfortable exposing my true self.

Uncovered. Unadorned. Unapologetically unmasked. §

Less Garbage More Love – a short story written by my son

This story was written by my son, Mac Griffin, who kindly let me share it here.

Again, I forget to take the trash to the curb, so I begin the recurring process of taking it to the dump. I pull the trash cans from the backyard to the driveway and heave them into the back of my truck. By this time, self-defeating thoughts pile up in my mind like the trash spilling from the cans.

Driving to the dump, the negative voices continue. You idiot. How hard is it to remember to take out the trash? My dog, Maverick, sits in the passenger seat. I bring him along for emotional support. His head hangs out the window, drool flying out of his mouth.

I realize Maverick is having a great time. So why is it so terrible for me? The trip to the dump takes only thirty minutes and brings me out for a ride in the sunshine with my best friend. As we pull around the corner a couple of blocks from the dump, I begin to toss the rubbish from my head and allow it to be filled with the sounds of Led Zeppelin blaring through my speakers.

On the corner an old man sits in a lawn chair and waves to the cars passing through the intersection. As I approach the stop sign, I raise my hand in a subtle hello. The man gives me an exaggerated wave, like a person waving to loved ones from the deck of a boat in a cheesy romantic comedy. As I pass he yells, “God bless you!”

On most days I would have responded differently to this man. I’m not religious. Your words have no meaning to me. On this day, however, I feel gratitude. Why disregard love just because it comes from an unfamiliar place? Here’s a man taking time from his day to spread kindness through his community. His belief about the source of love doesn’t really matter. Love is real, and he is sharing it.

This positive mindset is unusual for my brain, which usually hovers between cynicism and criticism, as a hummingbird hovers between two gloomy flowers. I like this feeling. I enjoy stripping the man’s words down to their essence and accepting them graciously.

The man doesn’t seem to care if anyone reciprocates what he has to offer. He cares about giving his neighbors something we need – solidarity, support and love. No, his words don’t erase the pain of losing your job or the fear of not knowing how you’ll pay the rent, but they remind you you’re not alone.

Especially during this uncertain time, I realize we really are all in this together. Perhaps we’re not in the same boat, some having yachts and others barely staying afloat on a piece of driftwood, but if we recognize we are navigating the same waters, we can begin to conquer the waves together.

After I dump the trash, I climb back in the truck, give Maverick a pat and turn up Zeppelin, grateful to be carrying less garbage and more love. §

Thank Goodness Some Things Never Change

While we hold our collective, anxious breath and nervously adjust to the challenges of a pandemic, nature seems blissfully above it all. The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. The moon still lights the darkness, and the Earth still steadily spins. Thankfully, some things never change.

Everything from school to restaurants to sporting events is cancelled or closed, but nothing is stopping nature from putting on its annual spring show. “That is one good thing about this world,” wrote author Lucy Maud Montgomery, “there are always sure to be more springs.”

Robins have returned with their round orange bellies. They poke their beaks into ever-warming ground with delight. Forsythia bushes bloom in wild sprays of yellow. Willow trees glow with a promising haze of green. Daffodils, crocus and purple snowdrops decorate tired brown corners with cheerful bouquets.

At a time when nothing seems certain, it’s as if nature understands the importance of offering something beautiful on which we can depend. The familiar signs of spring urge us to take notice of other comforts and joys we tend to take for granted.

We still have running water and electricity. There is plenty of food and, despite our concern, enough toilet paper. A free press keeps us well-informed. We stay in touch with loved ones through phones and computers. We borrow a tool from one neighbor and lend an egg to another.

We still sleep, work, play, talk, worry, love and laugh. Some things never change.

We know life may get worse before it gets better. If history tells us anything, we can trust the better angels of humanity will prevail. We will help each other and count on each other just as we can count on the sun to come up each morning.

No one could argue the joys of a pandemic, but it could bring us a positive shift in perspective and gratitude. Poet May Sarton wrote, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

Tonight, billions of stars will shine in our universe and billions of prayerful faces will look up to make a surprisingly similar wish. Some things never change. §