Friday, December 2, 2011

The Holidays at Casa de Unchained - 6 Ways We Keep Our Sanity

CAUTION: This is a longer post. That's because there's a lot of useful material here!

Many people are starting to talk about the stress of the holiday season: how to take care of all the extra little tasks, how to handle less-than-pleasant relatives, and how to manage their own stress.

Weirdly, some of these good souls ask what my holiday season is like. I guess it's sort of like asking who cuts the barber's hair.

These are not million dollar ideas! They're just tips that we've picked up along the way and use. If you can incorporate them too, then you're already in for happier holidays.

First, if you have kids, take some pressure off Christmas.
• We began by celebrating Hanukkah. That's eight straight nights of tradition: candle-lighting, prayers (we're determined to do it in Hebrew), dreidel, and small gifts. And I mean SMALL gifts, from the traditional net bag of chocolate geld to a jar of bubbles or a new pair of knit gloves - usually nothing more than a dollar or two.
• We also began celebrating St. Nicholas Day, in an effort to promote the giving aspect of Christmas more than the receiving aspect. We tell or read Nicholas' story and plan a way - as individuals and/or as a family - to give to others. This presents a great opportunity to explore ways to help others in need. There's a gift on this day, too, with a condition: it's something to be shared. It doesn't have to be expensive - a game, puzzle, or even a big tin of popcorn and a new movie that can be enjoyed with a friend.

Next, don't let things pile up.
• The first priority is to plan and purchase gifts that will need to be shipped. Unless it's an amazing bargain, that's the focus of Black Friday shopping. The first weekend in December, those things need to get wrapped and packed in a box. If you're going to send homemade goodies, they need to get baked over the weekend and packed in the box, too.
• The same weekend, get out your Christmas cards and address book and stamps, sit down, and get all the cards signed and ready to mail.
• On Tuesday or Wednesday after the weekend, take everything to the Post Office and get it sent. (Monday is too busy, but the sooner you get it there, the faster it will arrive and you won't have to pay extra for Priority postage.)

Give to yourself.
• I've given myself a gift of 30 days. I was already exercising, drinking water, flossing, and all that stuff, but I've determined to step it up for December and give myself just a little more attention. Trust me, you've got an extra five minutes every day you could use to give yourself a mini-facial, enjoy at least half a cup of tea, crank out another 60-second plank, or whatever your body will benefit from.
• If it requires time outside the normal morning or evening routine, write it down in your planner, in ink. That makes it harder to ignore when other things threaten to steal the time.

Plan regular de-stressors
• There are lots of things you can do to help yourself manage stress. I have a list of over 100 do-it-yourself stress relievers and it's growing. On a daily basis, do at least three things that help YOU. Don't worry, it's easy. Using scented shower gel? If the fragrance is rejuvenating or relaxing, that's aromatherapy. Taking a multi-vitamin? The B-complex vitamins help your brain handle stress. Breathe? Of course. Use the 1-2 or elevator method to give yourself a boost of oxygen, mindfulness, and relaxation.
• Other stuff to do regularly: Spend quality time with your pets - grooming or exercising them is good for them and you. Enjoy some quiet background music with dinner one night. Stock up on citrus (fights oxidative stress and provides tryptophan which we convert to serotonin), complex carbs (create serotonin when digested), salmon or tuna (Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the stress hormone cortisol), and black tea (more antioxidants plus it reduces cortisol levels). Get enough sleep, even if it means missing an hour of TV.
• You can also take a nap, get a massage (doesn't have to be from a pro; just a one-minute neck rub or do-it-yourself foot rub), rock out in the car, and of course, maintain control of clutter.

Those people you'd rather not spend time with
• You can over-book your social calendar, which leaves you with limited time for your obligatory visit with Aunt Harriet. On the other hand, it becomes just one more stop you have to make, which can backfire on you by creating more stress. It's easier to deal with people as they are and when you must, rather than trying to control every situation. Remember you can choose whether to act or react.
• Got a relative who dishes out criticism disguised as compliments? Usually an older woman, but sometimes a man. Something you've done is good, almost as good as some other relative, who also did something else. You know the type. Consider what this person is really trying to accomplish. Cruel and manipulative people are out there, but they aren't nearly as common as we like to believe. Usually, we're misinterpreting them. Is it possible that Grandma Hilda thinks it's important that you be kept up to date on your third-cousin's accomplishments, and your own achievement reminded her? Check in with Cousin Fred - odds are, Hilda has compared him unfavorably to you, too.
• How about the relative who likes to stir the pot? It could be Uncle Ralph with his loud and long perspective on your personal issue (divorce, arrest for buying drugs from a nun, botched sex change, whatever). It could be your sister-in-law with her "let's you and him fight" game. You know that's how they are. The good news is, so does the rest of your family, which means nobody's listening that closely. Even if you choose to play along and respond (which seems to only prolong the ordeal), it's just family. If you get dragged unwillingly into a conversation or monologue, don't sweat it. The most important members of your family don't care, so don't worry about being embarrassed. Impress everyone with your Zen diplomacy and tell Uncle Ralph he's got a (pause) interesting assessment. Then shut up and walk away. Tell Sissy you admire her determination to start a fight without being in it, but you aren't playing. Then shut up and walk away. DO NOT ENGAGE beyond that point. Be polite, but don't play.
• Neutralize drama before it starts. If you're hosting the obligatory family thing, invite a few more people; it's too hard for a diva to be a diva if there are more distractions for everyone else. If you're not, work with the host to plan a theme - sledding with the kids, a family charity project where everyone brings a toy or can of food, a white elephant gift exchange, whatever; discussion will naturally focus there. If there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst, ban them and announce (and enforce) an unpleasant consequence for bringing them up; anyone talking politics has diaper duty (or whatever might be appropriate). When you sense the beginnings of annoyance, breathe, smile, acknowledge that the other person may have a point, but the important thing is that (fill in the blank).

Social scheduling
• As a kid, I remember feeling rushed at home on Thanksgiving and Christmas so we could drive for hours and make it to two sets of grandparents. After a really long day, we'd drive for more hours and eventually we'd get home so I could go to bed. NOT my idea of a fun day.
• As an adult, it could've become more complicated, because then there are parents and in-laws, too. If you don't have kids, it won't kill you to make two stops. More than that and it not only becomes harder to schedule (everybody wants to eat in the early afternoon, it seems), but it sucks away your time to enjoy the day at home or with your friends/neighbors/pets/couch.
• If you have kids, it's time to carve out your own family traditions. Take care of your nuclear family first, and then figure out how to work in extended family. Can you host? Can everyone get together a day or two before or after the holiday? What about a New Year's party instead? There are lots of options for alternate schedules that don't require you trying to be all things to all people.

Yes, it's lovely to give. But it's better to keep your sanity.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spiritual Literacy?

December is Spiritual Literacy Month. In spite of, or maybe because of, your personal beliefs, this month encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and learn something about the spiritual traditions in the world.

After all, you can't criticize them if you don't know anything about them! (If that offended you, it applies to you most. Everybody else is just smiling. It's ok; I expect this post will get at least a few people snarling.)

If you just can't force yourself to broaden your horizons (nobody's forcing you to convert), at least deepen your understanding about your own spirituality (or lack of).

Notice I haven't used the word "religion." Indulge me. I've been used to a Hebrew or Greek word study as part of church for eight years now, so let me share something:
I do not support religion.

If memory serves, "religion" comes from Latin roots meaning "to bind back to" and usually refers to a binding to ritual or rules. Rituals are man-made; by definition, how spiritually fulfilling can they really be? Paul said that faithless works are meaningless, in the spiritual context. In other words, anybody can go to a church and stand and sit and sing on cue, following all the rituals, without being spiritually involved at all.

Spirituality, though. That's another thing altogether. Spirituality does not point fingers at others, it requires us to examine ourselves. Spirituality does not add man-made rules. Spirituality does not ask us to follow blindly without question and do things that otherwise rational people would never do.

If you're a church-goer, think about the doctrine your church teaches: how much is spiritual, and how much is religion (man-made rules)? If you're calling yourself an atheist, is it because you truly don't believe in God, or because you don't believe in religion? (You'd be surprised how often it's the latter.)

No religion. That's why it's not religious literacy month.

Examine your spirituality this month. Spend some time considering what you believe (or don't) and why.

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