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Dr. Cara Barker

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The Art of Rewriting The Holidays

Posted: 11/18/09 08:45 AM ET

"Runners, to your starting gates!" With Halloween a thing of the past, and 'leaf slush' pretty much every where you step, it's not hard to imagine that in a few more days, the smell of roasted turkey will fill the air of American kitchens. It will be preceded, however, by a good deal of sweat equity. There's a gap between the here-and-now and there.

"I don't know how well I'm going to pull off the holidays", my neighbor Megan confessed as she tossed briefcase, gym bag and backpacks into her Outback's trunk. Every year, I swear I'll start earlier, and I never catch up with myself in enough time to actually do it. Come on, kids", she said, as her three little boys piled into the car, two still clutching morning toast, her three year old, sleepily rubbing his eyes.

As they drove down the hill, Sharon, another neighbor clad in blue chenille robe and 'Ughs', retrieved her morning paper from drooping rose bushes. "I'm glad that's not my life," Sharon said with a yawn. I guess there's one good thing about my company going down in flames. I'm actually going to be ready for Thanksgiving this year, although it won't be fancy."

One year later, I review my notes from this 2008 pre-holiday encounter, then head off to shoe repair and grocery, where I decide to ask those I meet: "Where are you with Thanksgiving 'around the corner' this year?" Most are 'singing the same tune as Megan' was 12 months ago:

Like every year, somehow I'll pull it off. I have no idea 'how'. The pressure's mounting, and then, Christmas. The whole thing's a whirlwind, and, too often, I feel like I missed it.

I promise myself every year I'm going to start earlier, going to get myself together, and enjoy the whole process, but it never happens. By the time I've got everything on the table, I'm exhausted. When I look at my family, it's worth it, but I wish I had more time with them.

This rings a bell. In the wake of our friend's death this past week, leaving behind his 15 year old daughter, son, wife and grandchildren, it matters little to the hearts of those who knew him that Dr. Gene Cohen's achievements earned him significant space in the Washington Post, and New York Times. What matters to us is this giant of his time's absence at the table. Loss is an unwelcome guest at too many a holiday feast. We need to take time today with those we love, and celebrate those who are no longer here.

"'Tis' the Season." The question is, for what? With all the stressors around, what might help this year as we launch? What if we did a little 'tweaking' this year, before you sprint out the door? What if we decided to bring more 'ease into the system,' enjoy the process more, and stress out less? What if those of us who don't live in the perfect Norman Rockwell painting, chose to simplify, and 'not sweat the small stuff'?

Rewriting Your Own Holiday Story. One of the most encouraging developments of late, is the number of books reporting the power of rewriting our story. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's The Third Chapter, and Jim Loehr's The Power of Story are well worth the read. From a different lens, their research conclusion is the same. Those who write out the details of how they'd like to be living fare better than those who do not. The more details, the better. This supports the burgeoning field of neuroscience. When we quiet the mind, contemplate, and conceive the details of what we desire, this affects the development of neural pathways that promote the down-regulation of the sympathetic nervous system, (read this as 'stress central'), and promotes relaxation, harmony, well-being. There is an additive effect, apparently, of committing this to writing. Of course, this takes a bit of time, but you are worth it. We can do what Megan did over the past year, and create a new relationship with life. We can break out of the holiday box.

Drafting a New Chapter: I have empathy for Megan, and all the 'Megan's' out there. I remember how I used to self-torture comparing my holiday preparations with Rockwell illustrations, which were, by the way, his fantasy. There just seems to be something about difficult times that sends us racing down memory lane and 'grass is greener.' It does not work. It certainly didn't for me after divorce, split custody, remarriage, disappointments and losses. Holidays have a way of resurfacing hurt.

So, too, with Megan after her husband left, and she asked to meet for coffee. With a little course correction, Megan realized last winter that she had become a victim of her own story. I suggested she describe, in writing, her life, as is, during the holidays. She wrote: "I start my day being shot out of the canon. I'm behind before I get up often, as I rush them out the door. We are always rushing."

We decided to start there. She rewrote her desired new start: "By the time I get up, I've had a good night's rest, even if it means going to bed at 9p.m., even if all the dishes are not put away, and all the laundry is not folded. I forgive myself. My home is more relaxed, and no longer stressed. I give up perfection. I give up striving, and surrender to more human moments with myself and my kids. I begin my day in bed with 10 minutes of gratitude for what we have, and a few for focusing on the one thing that is most important to me to experience by the time I hit the bed. I practice remembering that every day is my personal Thanksgiving, even when I feel my gratitude cup is leaking." This year, Megan and her boys are "going camping at the Holiday Inn for Thanksgiving. We've all decided that we are not going to make our beds. We're having hot cocoa in our room. We're bringing the Monopoly game, our bathing suits, and smore-making items. We are going to make new memories and break free."

5 Actions for Rewriting Your Holidays:

1. Before you go to sleep tonight, consider taking out a sheet of paper. Write out a simple description of what's most important for you this season. Go for details, not perfection.
2. Breathe in/breathe out.
3. Once relaxed, imagine yourself experiencing what you've written.
4. What one little action step might you take to set this scene into motion?
5. How might doing this enrich your experience of the holidays this year?

Have a blessed Thanksgiving. Remember that you are greatly appreciated, deeply cherished. In my book, you are THE BEST! Do pass along my thanks to you, and your contact list.

Let me know what you'd like to rewrite? For what are you most thankful? Love, Cara

 

Follow Dr. Cara Barker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrCaraBarker