The 12 Days of Christmas: Day Two: There’s no time! Handling the stress of too much to do and too little time

handling Christmas stressMost people I knew are somewhat busy. If you’re not retired, you’re working. If you’re retired, you’re working even more. Children and pets and homes and yards and bills that have to be paid and laundry that has to get done… well, you get the picture.

Then along comes the Christmas season, and on top of all of the everyday things you have to add shopping, cooking and baking, sending cards, decorating, parties, special events… well, you get the picture.

It’s no wonder that many people find themselves greeting Christmas morning with illness. There’s a lot of stress mixed in with those holiday greetings.

Here’s a few tips for dealing with the stress of too much to do and not enough time for doing.

1. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. You really cannot make a quilt in three days. You cannot make personalized ornaments for each child in both of your children’s classes at the same time that you have a major project due at work. You cannot perfectly replicate Martha Stewart’s Christmas decorations and menu. I know you like to think you’re the exception, but you’re not. Just let it go.

2. Do triage. If you’ve ever been to the Emergency Room, you’ve been seen by a triage nurse. Triage nurses decide who is most critical and must be seen first.

Do triage for your holiday commitments. For example, I love receiving and sending Christmas cards. What I really love is connecting and catching up with old friends. One year sending out cards didn’t make it to the top of the list, so I sent out a New Year’s letter instead. Have you always done something because you’ve loved it or because you’ve always done it?

I know a pastor who told his congregation that if he and his wife attended every Sunday School class Christmas party they would have no evenings at home with their own family. So they started a rotation system. Maybe you need one as well. One year you’ll go see “The Nutcracker” and the next year you’ll see “A Christmas Carol.”

3. Have a plan. Do you need to ship presents to out-of-town family members? Put the needed shipping date on your calendar. Then a week or two before that date add a note about buying the presents. Sit down and look at your calendar and figure out when you can decorate or cook ahead. Fill in the special events you want to attend. Look at the month as a whole.

4. Abandon your plan. Stuff happens. Roll with it. One of the greatest stresses people create for themselves is when they insist that things have to go a certain way and that everything is ruined if that doesn’t happen.

So you forgot to put the sweet potatoes out. You can have them later. So the cat knocked over the Christmas tree. You can put it back up. One year my brother and his wife were unable to make it for Christmas because of a snowstorm that grounded flights. We had a wonderful visit a week later when they were able to get to our house. Stuff happens, and most of the time it’s really not a tragedy.

5. Decide what’s important to you and honor that. It’s kind of a triage on a deeper level. If you do indeed believe that the real meaning of Christmas is to celebrate God’s gift to us, then make room for honoring that. Make room for your spirit. Many years I make it a ritual to find time each week to listen to Christmas music while sitting by my tree or by the fire. This year I’m going to the Candle Tea in Old Salem. In addition to coffee and sugercake (which is not small things in itself!), I know I’ll be able to sing Christmas carols by the old organ. And it will be a good thing for my spirit.

Next time: Day Three: Present-Day decisions



The 12 Days of Christmas: Surviving and Thriving (Day One)

12 days of ChristmasIn case you hadn’t noticed, the holidays are upon us. For some of you, this may be good news as you crank up the Christmas music and bring out the tinsel. For others, it maybe a painful time. For many of us, there’s an extra helping of stress as we try to add decorating, shopping, card sending, parties and family visits to an already full calendar.

So between now and Christmas my gift to you is a guide to not only surviving the holidays but perhaps even thriving in them. For each post, we’ll focus on a strategy to help you through what may be some of the hardest aspects of the holidays for you.

Day One: I don’t feel like celebrating (grief version)

For whatever reason, you’re out of step with the holiday season. It may be the first Christmas without someone who was very special in your life, whether a family member or friend. Or your loved one may still be here, but you’re well aware that it’s probably the last Christmas that you’ll celebrate together. Or it may not be the first Christmas but the second, which in a weird way feels even harder because the reality sets in. They’re not just gone on a trip. They’ll never be here for Christmas again.

It may be the first Christmas since the separation or divorce, and for the first time since your children were born you won’t see their faces on Christmas morning. The prospect feels unbearable.

The first strategy is to give yourself a pass. If you feel like you’ll weep your way through the neighborhood caroling, take a pass this year. Missing one year doesn’t mean you’ll never do it again. Listen to what will bring you comfort. There may be comfort for you in keeping some of your traditions or it may be too heart-breaking. No one else can be an expert on what is right for you. You do what you need to do.

And that’s the second strategy: Do what you need to do to get through this year. If you need to drink hot chocolate and cry your way through “It’s a Wonderful Life,” then do it. If you need to go on a Bahamas cruise and skip over Christmas this year, then do it.  Some people find meaning and comfort in doing something for someone else at this time; for example, helping to serve a holiday meal to those in need.

There are provisions to this rule: First provision: Doing what you think you need to do does not apply if what you think you need to do is drink large quantities of alcohol or partake in recreational drugs. It may be tempting to numb out the feelings but the feelings don’t go away. Better to allow them and deal with them. If you need to see a therapist or attend a support group to help you get through it, then do it. Your local hospice may have a group or workshop for those facing grief and the holidays.

The second provision is if you have small children in the house, respect their need for continuity and tradition. You may not feel like putting up a tree or doing stockings, but it’s important for them. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to pretend like nothing has happened. You and your children can talk about what’s different and how you feel about it. Give them permission to be both happy and sad.

This Christmas is simply this Christmas. If it is less than joyful for you, it doesn’t mean you’ll never have a good Christmas again. Give yourself permission not to do everything if it seems too heartbreaking for you. Do the things that bring comfort. And allow yourself to get support and help as you need it.

Next Time: Day Two: There’s no time! Handling the stress of too much to do and too little time

Penn State, part two

In an earlier post I commented on how the Penn State sexual abuse scandal had revealed that there’s still a lot of misinformation when it comes to child sexual abuse.

After writing that column, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas came out with a piece in which he declared that this was all the fault of the freewheeling 60’s (and Dr. Spock.)

Here’s my rebuttal, which was published in the Winston-Salem Journal:

Cal Thomas is Wrong

Veteran’s Day

Today is 11.11.11. It is also Veteran’s Day.

Pvt. Haymes in Paris

For me the face of Veteran’s Day is always Pvt. Joseph A. Haymes, known to his comrades in arms as “Virginia” (his home state.) He was a sniper in General Patton’s Third Army, Yankee Division. As a sniper, he was often freelancing as Patton’s army made its record-setting march across France, going off on his own to spy out a situation or to attack a specific target.

Exploding shrapnel took a chunk of his leg on November 8, 1944, outside of the French village of Moyenvic. By the end of the day, any member of his unit who had not been wounded had been killed or taken prisoner. As a sniper, he would have been killed as soon as he was captured. He recovered and returned to the front but something was different. Before, he’d assumed he was never getting home again. Now it was a possibility and it made things seem all the more dangerous.

Fifty odd years after the war, he returned to France with members of the Yankee Division. Every village hailed them as heroes, throwing civic banquets in their honor. In fact, if you look up “Moyenvic” on Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of the monument that was placed there in their honor.

In my mind, my father was the best kind of soldier. He took great pride in what he did… and yet had no taste for it. When they interviewed him about being a sniper, they asked if he could bring himself to aim directly at another man. And could he not grow to like it. He did both.

He knew that he was doing a job that had to be done. There was no question but that Hitler had to be stopped. He took pride in being a part of something so important, and took pride in doing it well. But he had no romance for war. He once wrote, “War is hard on men who are old enough to know better.” His was not the glib and easy patriotism of those who have never heard the bullets and seen the blood. His was the patriotism that is willing to do the hard things simply because they must be done.

He carries the war with him. He carries it in the crater of a scar that marks his leg. (One day recently he complained to me that his leg was giving him pain. “Did you hurt it?” I asked. “Yes, he said, “someone shot me.”) He also carries it with him in his stories – the ones he has shared and the ones he will never tell.

I know that he will appreciate being honored and remembered today. But I think I can safely say that he would be even more honored to live in  a world where young men and women did not have to do such things. Let us honor our veterans not only with our thanks but also with our commitment to peacemaking.

Our peacemaking can begin on a small scale. It begins when we refuse to divide up into us versus them. It begins when we try to hear, really hear, someone who is different from us.  It comes as we ask from our political leaders; yea, demand from  our leaders not the easiest courses, the ones best suited for glib soundbites, but the wisest ones – not only for ourselves but for our children.

It may be unrealistic to envision a world without war. But it may be necessary that we try.

Reflections from Penn State

Like some of you, I’ve been following the breaking story from Penn State. A former assistant football coach has been charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys (the number is almost certain to rise). Some of the incidents were discovered but various authorities never followed through. As a result Sandusky was allowed to continue abusing boys.

As I’ve followed not only the reporting on the case but also the discussion that has gone along with it, I’ve realized that there is still an awful lot of misinformation about child sexual abuse. Let me respond to things I have read first.

“The parents didn’t report it for ten years, so it couldn’t have been that bad.” Child sexual abuse flourishes in a context of secrecy and shame. Often that shame is encouraged by the abuser.  Although it has gotten much, much better, children still often do not tell. They are led to believe that no one will believe them. (This is especially true if the abuser is someone with high standing in the community, such as a coach or minister.) Or people will know how bad they are.

“Children who were abused grow up to be abusers themselves.” It is true that many abusers were themselves abused as a child. But the reverse is not true. Most victims do not grow up to abuse.

“Joe Paterno wasn’t told about the rape (witnessed by the graduate assistant). He was only told there was fondling.” Really? As if that makes a difference? Abuse is abuse.

One of the things that has jumped out at me is that knowing that Sandusky had a serious allegation of sexual abuse in his history, Paterno and others did not question his charity work with troubled boys. This is, in fact, a classic operating style of a pedophile. They put themselves in positions in which they have lots of contact with children. They then befriend the kids who are especially vulnerable – the ones that have a troubled background or who don’t quite fit in. The extra attention makes the child feel special but also opens the door for the abuse to unfold.

I have heard people argue that Paterno did his duty in reporting the incident, and as a non-witness, he had no say in seeing the final report. But if I know that someone has been accused of abuse and I know that someone is working in an organization that puts them around children, I am going to do whatever it takes to find out the results of that abuse investigation. It is not enough to say, “Don’t bring that around here.” (Sandusky was barred from bringing children to the Penn State athletic facilities.)

I believe Joe Paterno was rightfully fired, not because he is a bad man. But because he found it easier to ignore red flags than to confront them. I commend the Board of trustees for making the statement that even a multi-million dollar football program is not worth the life of one child.

I once confronted a friend about a choice he’d made with his own children. It wasn’t abuse and he is truly a great dad. But it seemed to me that the kid had been put in a situation with potential (however slight) for harm, a situation that did not seem wise to me. We had a pretty heated exchange; in fact, the most heated exchange we’ve ever had. Being basically conflict avoidant, it was tremendously difficult for me to say anything. He told me it was none of my business. I replied that the safety of children was everyone’s business.

When I graduated from high school, our speaker reflected upon the “rights and responsibilities” that came with our diplomas. Part of the responsibilities of being an adult is that sometimes we have to do the hard things. We have to make the tough calls. We have to have the hard conversations that we’d rather not have. We have to ask the questions that we’d rather not hear the answers to. We have to be willing to risk friendships and reputations because those things are not as important as doing what we can to see that a child is not harmed.

I am both sorry and sad that Joe Paterno’s career has come to this kind of end. I am sorry and sad that in his eighties he is having to face the realization that he should have done more. But I am even sorrier that he did not use his considerable power and influence to stop a pedophile from continuing to abuse. People who are upset this morning with the firing are protesting that he is just the fall guy. But the reality is that with great power comes great responsibility. And sometimes, with great responsibility comes great consequences.


Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.  – Winnie the Pooh

The maker of some new product contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to review said product in my blog. I wrote back to say that this is not that kind of a blog. It’s a blog for reflection and (hopefully) some inspiration and encouragement.

But I’m breaking that rule today.

One of the things that I see people struggle with is how to get organized. Many of us are leading at least two or three lives at once (work tasks, family tasks, church tasks, home tasks). How can we keep track of all that has to be done, much less do it? We waste a lot of time and generate a lot of frustration just trying to keep track of things.

I kept looking for some magic system. Every year around this time I started prowling the aisles of Office Depot thinking that this year I could find the perfect planner. I flirted with the Getting Things Done (R) system but found it too cumbersome. I really wanted something that was hosted on the web so that I could access it anywhere.

And then I found Todoist. Todoist is a flexible, easy task manager program. It works on Outlook, Mac and Chrome as well as having a mobile app. (I have not yet tried the mobile app.)

Here’s how it works. You create a project. Within that project you can add as many tasks as you need. You can add a due date by the calendar or by typing in things like “tomorrow” or “Wed.” You can also make it a recurring task. For example, I’m writing this today because my “blog task” is labeled “Every Wednesday.” You can easily rearrange the order of your tasks.

One of the nice things is the filter. I can bring up lists of tasks for today, tasks that are overdue or tasks for the next seven days. The basic service is free but with a $30 a year subscription, you can add labels. For example, my labels include things like “publishing,” “counseling,” and “marketing.” You can put as many labels on a task as you want. This way I can bring up a list of what needs to be done today – or I can see what’s on my list for marketing. I can add a task when I think about it – no matter how far into the future it is.

Todoist integrates with iCal and Google calendar. I can bring up iCal on my computer and immediately see not only the appointments I have for today but also the tasks that need to be done. Being a visual person, it really helps me having it all in one place. It was very easy for me to learn.

If you’ve been struggling with keeping track of things you have to do or if you’d just like to be a little more efficient, I highly recommend Todoist.