Free Christmas Story

final cover     This is one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. I wrote it for adults, but most of the stories are good material for families. One fourth grader borrowed it from me and read the whole thing to his five year old sister! It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. Here’s the cover story:

                        THE BALLOON
The day before Christmas, three year old Damon sat up in his new big-boy bed, which was shaped like a red fire truck. He climbed onto its roof, about four feet from the ground, and did a flying dive onto a mattress, which his dad had put on the bedroom floor “for a few days”, when he had bought a replacement for it. That was a year ago, and Damon had safely mastered quite a few acrobatic moves because of it. It had been a fixture for so long, this queen-sized cushion for heroism, that he couldn’t remember living without it. When he visited his aunt on Thanksgiving, he had stared at the bare floor of his cousin’s room bewildered, and asked, “Where’s your mattress?”
Damon rolled around for a while, then somersaulted off the mattress and ran into the room of his sleeping parents. He scrambled onto their bed and jumped up and down until he tripped on his dad’s leg and fell in between his parents, who would have liked to sleep a little longer.
“Are you ‘wake, Dad?”
“Yeah, buddy. You’ve made that happen.”
“Can we go for pancakes now?”
His dad was going to take care of him all day long while his mom cooked for Christmas. They would go to the restaurant with the smiley-faced pancakes, followed by
riding the little train at the mall, and other fun things. They would do all these fun things one after the other, not like with his mom, who always had other things to do in between
the fun.
Damon’s dad, Will, stroked the little boy’s spikey hair, pulled him down on the bed and blew on his belly until the shrieking made his mom groan and cover her head with a
pillow.
“Come on, we’ll let Mommy sleep more,” Will said, and carried Damon out of the room. He was a hefty little kid, not fat but strong and muscled, with a round belly still, and soft chubby cheeks. Will loved how steadily cheerful he was,how ready to talk, learn and play at every moment. He might be obstinate or bossy sometimes, but he never
whined. In his monotone, matter-of-fact voice, he was always asking questions about how things worked. He had an enormous vocabulary, and an answer for everything.
When his preschool teacher asked him to do crafts, which he hated, he would say things such as, “I’d like to, but I just got my fingernails cut so my hands don’t work very well.”
Will took him to the pancake house, then up to a nearby funeral home that had a live nativity. They fed carrots to the donkey. Will told Damon that baby Jesus had been born in a place like this, out where the animals lived.
Damon stuck his hand into the greasy wool of a sheep as it stood by the fence. He examined his fingers, rubbing them together. Will assumed he had not been listening, but Damon asked, “Why didn’t they go to the hospital?”
“There wasn’t one back then. Babies were born at home, but Mary was far away from home in a crowded place and there wasn’t even room in the hotel.”
Damon peered in the shed where statues of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and baby glowed under spotlights.
“That’s not a real baby,” Damon observed. He stuck his lanolin-greased thumb in his mouth, but Will pulled it out. “Keep your hands out of your mouth, Damon, you’ve
got animal germs on them. You’re right, it’s not a real baby. Jesus was a baby a long time ago. He’s still here, but he’s…invisible now. We can’t see him.”
“Why doesn’t he ever show up? Santa does.”
Will thought fast, as he often had to with Damon’s incessant curiosity.
“The Bible says Jesus is always with us, forever and ever.”
“Well, I never see him anywhere.”
Will did not answer. He suddenly remembered having the very same thought as a child. He recalled the empty disappointment when he understood that no one ever
actually saw God. He didn’t know what to say to his son. “Should we go get a present for your mom now?”
When they finished their stop at the dollar store, where Damon had picked out a pair of pink socks with silver bells on them, (“Because mom’s a girl and girls like pink,”) and a
large plastic angel so luminous it possibly glowed in the dark (“Because Grandma likes pretty things and this is just beautiful,”) they went home for a nap. They laid together on
the couch by the Christmas tree. Damon smiled, settled in with his head on Will’s chest, and stuck his now-washed thumb into his mouth.
Will thought he was asleep, but then he opened his eyes, pulled out his thumb and said, “I still wish I could see the real Jesus like the shepherds did.”
“You’re still thinking about that?”
“Yeah.”
Will started to formulate a response about having to wait for the next life for that, puzzling over how to make this palatable to a three year old, then, on a better hunch, he
just said, “Me too.” Then he smiled and asked, “So if Jesus wasn’t invisible and you could see him, what would you do?”
Confidently, Damon answered, “We’d wrestle, and ride a swan.”
“A swan?” He guessed Damon was remembering a fall walk in a nearby cemetery where white swans glided around a lake.
“Yeah. In heaven there’s lakes with big swans, and Jesus could ask them to give us a ride.”
“So what else is in heaven?”
He shrugged with a frustrated frown. “I don’t know. I can’t get up there.”
Will went up on an elbow so he could see Damon’s face.
“I know what you mean. Sometimes I just want to go right up to Jesus and talk to him. I wish I could see into his eyes.”
“He should show up. Then we could give him a present.”
“Well, when you give other people presents, like Mom and Grandma, it’s kind of like you’re giving them to Jesus. He really likes it when you do that.”
The boy’s head shook back and forth patiently. “It’s not the same thing, Dad.” He snuggled against Will’s chest and fell asleep.
When Damon woke up, he lifted one of his father’s still-closed eyelids.
“I have an idea,” he whispered, his face a few inches away.
“Why are you whispering? You woke me up.”
Much louder, he said, “We could get him a balloon!”
Will rubbed his eyes. “Who?”
“Jesus! It’s his birthday and no one ever gets him anything. If we get a balloon, and let it go up in the sky, he can catch it.”
Will grabbed him, lifted him high and brought him back for a hug. “That’s a great idea, buddy.”
Right away, before the stores closed, Will dressed Dammon in his red coat and drove him to a party store that made helium balloons. They got a red one that said, “Happy
Birthday” on it. Will wrapped it several times around Damon’s hands and tied it.
“We’ll save it for tomorrow morning.”
Christmas morning, Damon had his parents up as early as they had feared.
They would not let him open his stocking or any presents until they had made coffee.
Damon said, “Well, then, I’m getting my coat on and my boots on and I’m giving Jesus his balloon.”
His mom deferred making coffee to throw on a coat and join him. Will hastily followed, grabbing his camera. He handed Damon the balloon, which was still tight and
buoyant, pressed against the ceiling. Will prayed that it would rise in the cold outside.
Will got the picture just as Damon let go of the string, the crimson coat and balloon against the green of juniper bushes. Damon’s eyes were wide and shining.
“Say something to Jesus,” his mom urged.
As the balloon rose and diminished in the cold clear sky, Damon yelled, “Jesus – get that balloon!”
They sang happy birthday as it disappeared.
Will took Damon’s hand. “He’s got it. He got your present.”
“Yeah,” Damon nodded with satisfaction. “Now, he won’t feel left out.”

 

Freedom to Focus

(The seventh post in a series on working at home.)

Working at home is less like work. Here I am at my standing  desk with an iced green tea, electronic music keeping me alert, laundry in the dryer, fresh air coming in my window, and freedom to wear my dorkiest T shirt.

Working at home gives you more control over your environment. This means more than just getting the laundry done while I’m learning some lines. On a deeper level, it helps me not to live so much in reaction to other people. I’m easily distracted by the conversations, the needs, the moods, the problems, of other people.

When I’m working at home, I feel like that girl in “The Incredibles” with her invisible force field surrounding her – I can keep out what would otherwise attack me. I plan better, write faster, think more clearly. I have less anxiety.Image result for incredibles force field

Of course there are pitfalls. There’s no one there to dissuade you from eating the whole cake, or binge watching Netflix all afternoon. We need to know ourselves  and choose what environment works best. Some people are carried along by the energy of others working alongside them, and need the structure of a workplace. Some people need a mix of both; working at home one or two days a week.

Being home-based keeps me focused – not only on what I’m doing but why I’m doing it. Built into the day are not only breaks to eat or go for a walk or tend to something around the house. I build in breaks to get mentally and spiritually recharged.

In the morning I read the Bible and pray. Then I make a list of what to get done that day. I take time to think about whether I’ve made the list too long. (How often we set ourselves up to fail!)

I ask myself it I’m being driven or compulsive in my choice of tasks. Do I really need to get all that done today, or do I just want to cross stuff off a list so I can feel competent? Am I thinking about what’s most important, or just being driven by the expectations of other people? You have the freedom to soul search when you set your own schedule.

Then I try to group tasks in categories – for example, in one day I might take a two hour chunk to do detail business – checking and sending messages, scheduling meetings, updating contacts. Then after a break I may take unbroken time for writing or long term planning and not respond to any messages at all.

It often helps to take a break between tasks that need different types of energy. I’ll exercise before diving into lots of detail work because I don’t like  it and I need to be energized to make myself  dive in. Before writing I may read a post or a chapter about the writing process, something inspiring. I’ll look at a Better Homes and Gardens to get me in the mood to clean my house, and watch a video about urban ministry if I need to get motivated to recruit for our church’s tutoring program.

Our quality of life is so much richer when we know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we have the freedom to do it at our own pace, with breaks that let us refuel and refocus. Working at home often makes it easier to do our best and take care of ourselves at the same time.

 

Why Sit When You Can Stand?

(Sixth in a series on working from home.)

I love working from home. Years ago, when I had to work in an office, I would get up early enough for the commute, put on my binding clothes and walk out the door feeling a pang at leaving the place where I felt most comfortable and free.IMG_20170607_171452142

For many of us, it isn’t the work that we don’t want to go to; it’s the confining space where the work gets done.

No wonder. Human beings were made to move around.

Dr. James Levine, in his 2015 book, “Get Up! Why your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It,” reports on research that proves our norms of 12-15 hours of sitting per day are causing a litany of health problems. Our risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity is higher than for less sedentary people. We gain weight, we can’t think as clearly or stay as alert.

A 2014 Canadian study, found that the more time people spent up on their feet, the longer they lived.

Our culture is way overdue for major lifestyle changes.

Image result for sleeping at a deskWorking at home gives us unique opportunities to either sit ourselves to death, or keep moving all day long.

On one hand, some people report that working at home leads to less movement, since they don’t need to go anywhere.

On the other hand, we’re free from the office norms that keep so many people sitting. We can stand up for phone calls, to work on computers, to read and write. We can pace around our whole place while we’re thinking through a problem. We can do huge, office-inappropriate stretches while someone’s monologing on a conference call.

We can work in our sweats till we’ve exercised and showered. We can jump up and down 100 times when we get dopey. We can walk around the block to calm down when someone has made us mad.

Our family invested in a standing desk this year, and I’ve been delighted with how much more alert I feel, and how tasks even seem a little bit easier. My sons have used a fold up desk extension – it looks like a tray on long legs mounted on a desk. That worked well too, and was a whole lot cheaper. Working at a kitchen counter or even sticking your laptop on a stack of big books is better than sitting all day. A good starting place for shopping is this review: http://www.reviews.com/standing-desk/

So far in this series on working from home we’ve covered the need to eat well, take regular time off,  set boundaries for how available we are, build good work habits and reward ourselves for the work we do. I think that taking advantage of our freedom to move is another key way to increase our health and productivity at the same time.`

Why You Should Really Take a Day Off

(Fifth in the series, “Working At Home Survival Guide”)

Imagine your favorite piece of music. Whether it’s  Mozart or Beyonce, it wouldn’t work without rests. Imagine that tune, slightly speeded up, with no breaks, pauses, silences of transition. It becomes an irritating and unsustainable exercise.Related image

That’s how some of us are trying to live. We’re trying to cram every day of every week, feeling worth more because we do more, earn more, see more people, go more places. But speed it all up too much and it’s blur without meaning.

It’s especially easy to skip taking days off when you work for yourself. It’s all up to us, and anxiety over making a living can make a day off seem impossible.

In Julia Cameron’s self-help book for creatives, she insists on the necessity of the weekly ‘artist date’ where we take at least two hours off to do nothing but care for our creativity, not doing what someone else wants, but what our deepest self is drawn to.

This book was one of the more important I’ve ever read (and worked through.) I wouldn’t have found it if I had not realized that my sanity depended on getting away from my three little kids for a chunk of time every week. The first time I did, I sat exhausted on a bookstore bench, and prayed that God would lead me to something that would restore my sanity. “The Artist’s Way” fairly jumped off the shelf.

What Cameron learned through hard experience, was that if she didn’t stop working to refuel, the well dried up. You don’t have to be a writer or a painter for the creative well to dry up. You can be the IT guy who starts to resist change because it takes such huge effort. You can be the chef who starts to find every dish a bore. You can be the pastor who flinches with irritation when the phone rings. You can be the mom at home with little kids who can’t make herself sit on the floor and play one more game.

It takes a day off a week and longer seasonal breaks, to be renewed.

For a long time, I took Sundays off, going to church, going to lunch with my husband and boys, then all of us doing what we liked. The day took on a luscious quality of timelessness and work was far from my thoughts.

Then one of my jobs started to require that I run a program on Sunday nights. This went on for a school year, and threw a shadow on my day off, making it hard to relax even in the hours before it that were still free. I couldn’t see a way to find another day off in the rhythm of family life. At the end of it, I was depleted.  My schedule was far less hectic than many others’, but still I am aware of how that absence of a whole chunk of time off wearied me. I felt like I had to squeeze the last drop of energy from my heart to start a task, it was harder to focus on what I was doing and I was blocked as a writer.

Lesson learned. Not only is it wise to work less than 50 hours a week (see the last post) but there is real magic in keeping one day clear of work.

Now I don’t have time to work on my day off.

 

Our Work is as Good or Bad as our Food

(Fourth in a Series on Working from Home)

I don’t want to write this post. I want to start and end the day with chocolate, eat deep dish pizza for lunch and drink coffee all afternoon. I’m working at home, so it’s all right there for the taking, with no witnesses.

I would do this if I could get away with it. But we really can’t. All day long, we choose either the fuel of life, health and high functioning, or the Fuel of Death. When we eat and drink the Fuel of Death, we lose energy, motivation, stamina and clarity. We need little naps. We think negative, circular thoughts. We can’t sleep at night, furthering the downward spiral.Image result for fattening food

I’m not a physician or a dietitian, but here’s what I know for sure:

Too much coffee jitters and hypes us, affecting sleep hours after we drink it. I’ve had to switch to half decaf, and only two or three cups before noon.

  • Too much food at once makes most of us super dopey. Big lunches especially slow us down. It helps to eat a few hundred calories late morning, then again mid-afternoon.Image result for eating badly, eating well
  • Sugars and refined flour – the principal ingredients in all yummy food – give us nothing, tax our organs and load us up with unwanted weight. The harsh reality is that we were made to eat mostly plants that have not been messed with. You know: apples, carrots, salads, grainy brown bread with seeds in it, nuts. Anyone who has tried a few days of this stuff without the sugar and white flour knows how good it feels. Everything is easier because our bodies have what they need.Related image
  • Some protein with each meal or snack keeps our energy more even – an egg, some nuts, a few cubes of cheese, a little lean meat or fish. It also keeps us from getting hungry again too soon and grabbing handfuls of cheese puffs.
  • Alcohol does not enhance work performance, or any performance. It doesn’t matter that lots of great artists were big drinkers. Most of them didn’t end well and we could have had decades of better work from them if they’d stayed sober.
  • Drugs, illegal or misused, do not enhance work performance, no matter how brilliant we may feel for a time.

The statement of the obvious must be repeated until we really believe it; Good food leads to good work. Bad food leads to bad work. I know there are some people who code for twelve hours at a time on Monster drinks and donut holes, but it’s going to catch up with them.

Changing eating habits is really hard. I’ve worked on one at a time, and I’m still far from ideal. Drinking a lot of water is a good habit to start with. Only buying good food really helps. Measuring quantities helps. Planning the day’s food ahead helps.

However we do it, we will be sabotaging ourselves when we try to work without the fuel our bodies were made for.

Don’t Be Too Available

(Third in a series of posts about working from home.)

Not everyone gets that working from home is still work. Many people who would never dream of bugging you at a corporate office or a factory floor won’t hesitate to call you for a chat at your home office, or expect you to reply to their texts right away.

It’s hard enough to keep ourselves on track when working at home; being derailed by family and friends can be overwhelming. IMG_20170607_171452142

It’s also hard for those around us to know when we are or aren’t working, unless we give some clear signals. This whole area of setting boundaries is really key. How we do it differs with what our set up is and the kind of work we’re doing, but it’s really hard to work at home without boundaries. We can’t get stuff done, and we’re likely to take out our frustration on loved ones, which is not cool. Boundaries protect everyone. Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. 1. Having a defined physical work space helps; preferably behind doors that close. Then tell people that when the door’s closed, you need privacy. An open door can mean, “Talk to me if you need something, but not just for fun.” If you don’t have a private space, you can leave earphones on when you don’t want to be disturbed, or wear you ‘get lost’ hat, or whatever it takes.IMG_20170607_171540584
  2. Set some regular work hours, then people can get into a habit of leaving you alone during those times. It’s also important to honor the times you set for being available, especially with kids. They’ll have an easier time getting used to your off-limits time if they know they can count on a game at lunch time, or an evening when you’re not constantly checking your phone.
  3. Consider separating your message and social media feeds, using some for work, the rest for private life. Then you’re not tempted to watch concert videos when you meant to check customer orders.
  4. Don’t tell everyone you work from home. Not everyone needs to know.
  5. Get used to missing out on some good moments. If you want your privacy to be taken seriously, you can’t jump ship every time you hear people laughing in the next room, or expect them to tell you when the movie starts.
  6. Don’t feel the need to be constantly responding to notifications, unless you’re a stockbroker or something. I told my kids if they really needed me, to phone rather than text, then gave them each their own ring tone. Then I could dive deep into a project and ignore everything, until I heard that Lord of the Rings theme, or the R2D2 bleeps. ( Zedge has fun ring tones.)

Lots of people swear they do just fine with multitasking, and mixing work with every other part of life, but more and more people are discovering that an interrupt-driven workday is less productive. 

Over the long-haul, a defined work space,  a set work time and some methods of reducing interruptions make working at home a lot more viable.

Habits Give Shape to the Day

(Second in a series on working from home.)

A day is precious; we can never get it back. Even if we live to be say, 80, we have less than 30,000 of them. A day is a story – given shape with a good beginning, a build towards resolution, a satisfying ending. Image result for story arc

Everyone, but especially those of us who drive our own workday from home, need habits that give it shape, meaning and energy.

In the same way that bad habits sabotage us, good ones carry us effortlessly in the right direction. Formed within a few months, they serve us well the rest of our lives.  Most of us can brush our teeth, for instance, without an agony of will or effort.

Given the choice, I would spend the greater part of each day in bed, alternately napping, reading novels and eating chocolates. Here are some habits that have led to other outcomes:

A Good Beginning:

Getting up at the same time each day is a really good idea. If you get up when others around you do, it takes less effort. My teenagers don’t need me in the morning any more, but it’s good to see them, join the bustle, ride their energy to get going.

Eating something that won’t cause you to die young is another good idea. More on food in another post.

Focusing mind and spirit on what’s good and true feeds our work as tangibly as our bowl of granola. As a Christian, I read a few pages of the Bible and then some other good book. Ann Voskamp’s “Broken Way” is my latest favorite. This is the best time of the day for me, taking in energy before the demands of the day kick in.

Goals for the Middle:

Everyone needs to walk the line between legalism and aimlessness when it comes to schedules. I hate routine, but without a list for the week and then a list for the day, I will literally stand in the middle of the room and pivot in circles – at home there is something to do everywhere you look.

Some people use fancy apps, some people put sticky notes on the wall, but the challenge is to pick a system and work it. Some need this to do enough work, others need it to make themselves stop.

Many professionals who work remotely tend to work themselves into the ground, equating hours put in with competence and success. Actually, after less than fifty hours a week, the returns sharply diminish. For years I set myself up for discouragement with lists that were just too long. That was dumb. Now I write lists I can finish and I feel like a rock star.

An Ending you can Live With:

I know a writer who finishes each day by reading out loud to his wife. Way to go, Mitch. An actress I tour with catches up with friends online till she starts to nod off. Another friend likes to play Spider Solitaire, whatever that is. She told me the other day she thinks she should be reading at night instead. I disagreed. I think we need to be able to look forward to doing whatever we want to do at the end of the day, provided that’s not injecting heroin, or eating 30 Twinkies – you know, something not destructive.

If my solitaire-loving friend thinks she should read more, then that is a discipline to be added to the work  list, not something she should make herself do when she finally has a few minutes for herself.

Finally, as we close the book on the day, it really helps to review what we accomplished and what we’re grateful for. Those are great thoughts to sleep on.