As we round the solstice today, I’m mulling the idea of receiving. Sure, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about health or the holiday season, but bear with me here. First off, I’m not talking about the massive, gimme-gimme materialistic free for all that too often edges out any genuine meaning to the holidays. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I tend to gravitate toward observing solstice. You don’t get 483 emails the week before reminding you that stores are now open 24 hours a day until the longest night of the year. (Most people couldn’t care less, in fact.) There’s something kind of appropriate to it really: the original mid-winter holiday remains the sparest and most unadulterated of the December celebrations. I’m talking about the nudge toward contemplativeness and a spirit of hospitality that I think most of us enjoy about this time of year. When we’re not rushing around harried by the compulsion to make this the most Martha Stewart worthy event ever, the holidays can call us to take stock, reach out, live it up in a way that’s good for body and soul.
Traditionally, midwinter celebrations (at least in some climates) were probably the last celebratory stop between harvest and spring. It was the feast before long months of relative scarcity. In some ways, it was a leap of faith, a last hurrah, a carpe diem made manifest event – because you could never be quite sure who would be around to welcome spring.
In the modern world, we’re good about earning things and dutiful about giving things, but what about receiving? Do we approach life as a string of responsibilities to be fulfilled? Is life this month organized by a gargantuan master list of schedules and shopping to-dos? Forget about putting ourselves last on the list. Do we even fit into the scheme at all? It’s like the mother who spent weeks planning a birthday party and every ounce of energy making sure everyone there had fun only to look back and realize she never even got a real moment with, let alone a picture of herself with the child that day.
There have been movies and novels – and likely many entertaining blog posts – written about chucking it all and “quitting” the holidays to sit on a beach or hide in a dirt hole just to avoid listening to Feliz Navidad one more time on the radio. In all seriousness, however, what can we do to make these weeks ones we feel nourished by, grateful for? Will we get the chance to reflect on the year, to take stock of what we’ve “received” this year – better health, more free time, a great vacation, joy in a rediscovered hobby, great family memories, etc. Will we get to enjoy what I consider the best of winter – the natural, seasonal call to slow down, turn inward, and nurture one’s own mental health? How are we going to look back on this month when it’s all said and done?
One winter afternoon a few years ago I met up with a group of acquaintances. We somehow got on the subject of unexpected gifts and receiving. Of all the stories, one gracious and amazing woman’s has stuck with me to this day. She’d been put on bed rest, she explained, for four months including the holidays during her third pregnancy. Although she was allowed to live at home during these months, she said it drove her up the wall some days to be stuck on the couch unable to get up and do simple things like make dinner, run errands, or take the kids out to play. At the time, she felt frustrated with the imposed restrictions and the effects they had on the efficiency of home life. She tried to make the best of it by setting up shop on the sofa with books and projects she could do with her two young boys. It was the best way, she thought, to pass the time and to at least give them her time and company. In our conversation that day, she explained that those months turned out to be the greatest gift she’d ever received. Just a few months after the baby was born, her middle child was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year’s time. Those months on bed rest when she was simply able to offer her undivided attention, to read, to listen, to cuddle with her boys were suddenly priceless. She would always be grateful, she said, for life taking her off course those months because it helped her find peace later.
However dramatic this mother’s example, it’s a reminder, I think, that gifts come in varying – perhaps deceptive but often simply modest – guises. We may not understand the value of one until much later. Sure, sometimes it really is a thoughtful gesture boxed and tied with a bow. Other times, it’s an invitation to share food and good company. Maybe it’s a stranger’s random act of generosity or our own discovery of a beautiful night. Maybe it’s just time – to think, to love, to be together. It’s less about the shape of the gift than the receptiveness we bring to it. Are we willing to receive what life is showing us, what people we know and care for want to give us at this moment? Are we driven to discover the sun – or the snow – outside our window and spend the day celebrating either? Do we even see it in front of us? How about directing our attention toward receiving? We might be surprised by what and who is waiting there.
This, I’d say, is the point I’ve been turning over in my head today. What can happen when we let go of our attachment to a particular outcome (or set of outcomes) this holiday season and just enjoy the ride? I think it behooves us to loosen our grip on expectations but to relish the present – the moment and just maybe that wrapped box – with more abandon.
What could this day be? What’s out there for the taking – the receiving – if you direct your attention to it? Grab it, my friends. That’s my plan for the day.
Happy solstice, everyone, and thanks for reading today. Be sure to share your thoughts on what you’ve received this year.