This Christmas Give Hope

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What does it mean to give a meaningful present? One that is a true expression of our love… can we truly take our hearts and wrap them in shiny paper, and give them in a way that affirms the worth of the recipient, the very value in their existence? This is a great challenge.

When I was shopping recently for my kids, seeing so many rows upon rows of plastic nonsense toys in the huge box stores left me feeling empty. All this abundance seemed a bit pointless, when so much of it was soon to be destined for the dump. It’s not that I hate toys. I still have stuffed animals and doll house furniture from when I was a kid, not to mention my stamp collection and books.

I think what bothered me was all these unnecessary things being consumed so voraciously, when so many other children in the world don’t even have a bed, or clean water, or a home to call their own. No one has given them gifts to affirm the very worth of their existence. Perhaps they don’t even have parents to kiss them goodnight and tell them how much they are loved. But instead of simply being grinchy and depressed by this, I wanted to do something, even if it was something tiny.

So I found a way to take some of these little broken pieces of my heart, wrap them with love, and send them overseas. The kids and I did it together, because it is so important that they learn to give, and not just to expect gifts from life. They will be happier this way; moreover, they will be more truly human. What did we do then? I usually hate spending money but this was my absolute favourite shopping of this year! We visited charity websites like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

We read about the impoverished and displaced people they help, and chose the gifts that spoke most to our hearts, like a sturdy tent to shelter a homeless family, blankets and mats to sleep on, and a water filter to provide clean water and help prevent disease. Another that tugged my heart strings was a Kangaroo Care Wrap that can double the chances of survival for a premie baby, by keeping her skin to skin and close to her mother’s heart. Having lost a full term baby girl five years ago, the idea of being able to help another baby survive was irresistible. For a mere $15, I could reach across the ocean and give a baby a chance at life, and a mother freedom from the tragedy of loss. My kids were really excited, too. They felt true joy at doing something so good for others.

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Another wonderful charity is Chalice, which sponsors poor children, helps their parents learn to plan their finances carefully, and gives them support and tools with which to earn a more stable livelihood. So if you want to empower families in need to become more independent by giving gifts like livestock, seeds, farming tools, a sewing machine or bicycle, etc, this might be a great charity for you.

I hope you’ve found inspiration in the great work that many people are doing around the world. If there’s anyone left on your list this Christmas Eve, consider giving them a gift that truly affirms their humanity and your own. The charities will send a nice e-card describing the important gift that was given in your loved one’s name.

Remember, we are not mere consumers! We are not robots who can run on money and possessions alone. We are all, each and everyone of every race and background, children of God who are strengthened by loving each other more deeply. This is what the Incarnation is about. The God who loves us all so tenderly that he wanted to affirm our intrinsic worth and erase all fear or doubt of our worthiness of being loved from our minds. He wrapped his divine heart in the frail paper of humanity and came to live among us, as a shepherd smelling of his sheep. He brought all the light and glory and splendour and magic of Heaven down to earth, to share it with us through his creation, if we would only reach out our hands to touch his and embrace this precious gift of life.

I hope you can find him this Christmas. In all the organizational Olympics of preparing your home for Christmas, may you see God at each turn…in the smiling face of your children and guests, in the beautiful colours of your Christmas meal, in the sparkling colours of lights on your tree…but also in moments of loneliness, sadness or rejection, and in the poor faces of humanity across the world, who need affirmation that they, too, are truly beautiful and loved.

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God bless you all this Christmas, and as my favourite radio man Archishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “God love you!”

Kid Clutter: Experiments in Decluttering Toy Tornadoes

The floor: for many of us parents, the sight of a bare floor is an amazing and rare spectacle, rather like the sighting of a double rainbow or a shooting star–beautiful and hauntingly brief–before it is submerged under a deluge of toys again.

I’ve tried many things to deal with this problem, like buying more toy bins from ikea and sorting the toys into them…repeatedly! Storage is not the solution, when everything is just going to be dumped out again. I’m also constantly decluttering and making give away bags of clothes and toys for Big Brothers Charity to pick up from my doorstep. I’ve even tried my sister’s method of toy jail, except sticking a box or bag of toys out in the garage temporarily. She told me:

I grabbed a garbage bag every night and a laundry basket. Set the timer. If things weren’t put back where they belonged they went in the garbage or into the “toy jail”. Then the jail went up on the fridge till they earned their toy’s freedom.

She was much more disciplined about doing this every night to establish a habit of tidying up. By the time I hit evening, I’m often too done in to do this. Or I’m just as overwhelmed as the kids by the sheer amount of tiny things to be responsible for. Hundreds and hundreds of little things to pick up, sort, organize, and put away. It’s a lot of pressure to deal with all this stuff.

So I finally hit a wall of frustration last weekend and decided to be a little more drastic. I brought in huge rubbermade bins from the garbage and dumped all the toy bins in them. I gathered up all the toys from the floor, everything but the toy food from in the toy kitchen, and a stuffie or two on each bed, and I put it ALL in the garage.

I waited for an explosion of outrage. For complaints. For tears. For…anything! But nothing came. The kids barely seemed to notice. My three year old Eddie turned all the empty toy bins into a toy train.

In his bed he has his Spider-Man doll and his Star Wars book. He’s perfectly happy. He has his siblings and his imagination. He has space to run and jump and play, instead of living in a toy tornado. We might bring some toys back in after a while, but not until they are specifically requested. So far, in a whole week, only one toy has been asked for, so I’ll go fetch that one thing.

I share this anecdote to demonstrate that sometimes we put too much stock in material things, thinking our happiness depends on them. It is a greater happiness to live the adventure of participating in making the world a better place. Life has much more savour and zest when we are not trapped in the tunnel of thinking mainly of ourselves. I read a great comment by a woman named Lauren in comments in We Are That Family blog:

My pastor said that we expect our children to be grateful when we shower them with gifts, but the only way to be really grateful is to live without.

I think the sheer amount of gifts children receive really cheapens everything. It’s so hard to really care about that many things. Especially when an empty box is just as fun to play with– or more!

We are still a fair way away from Christmas, the season in which loving relatives attempt to drive mothers insane by dumping down the chimney a sparkling deluge of tiny toys, to be picked up and sorted and lost and cried over and fought over approximately 2946393 times.

May I suggest, for those who may be thinking ahead, to consider experience gifts instead? Like taking the kids to a play or paying for an art class? Kids will love it! Nothing has brought my 6 and 7 year olds greater joy than their art class at 4 Cats art studio this fall. They are growing in confidence and learning new skills. Mothers all around the world will thank you for not bringing a million more tiny collectible toys to their house, especially every night when they go upstairs to read their kids a bedtime story, and can actually see that much coveted and beloved object: a clear floor!

As an added bonus, buying less toys is better for the environment, and helps preserve a more beautiful world for our kids to grow up in. Win-win!!

We are NOT our stuff

It’s easy to get mixed up about who we are…what is important to us and where we spend our time… Sadly those two things don’t always coincide. Sometimes we spend a lot of our time dealing with stuff that doesn’t really matter. Like our junk. Our millions of clothes, books, toys, papers, household supplies etc.     There’s a saying that where your treasure is, there is your heart also. We might think that our heart isn’t in our physical possessions, but if we spend huge amounts of time buying, organizing, sorting and maintaining them, then isn’t it true? Society (or at least advertisers) actually tries pretty hard to make us believe our happiness and identity does come from what we own. We define ourselves by our possessions:

I have Ferrari = I’m successful. I wear expensive jewelry = I’m classy. I have the latest fashions = I’m attractive. I eat organic = I’m pure.

There’s nothing wrong with these good things, but none of them actaully defines the core of who we are. None of these things come with us when we die. I believe it was St. John of the Cross who said, “At the evening of our lives we will be judged on love.”     So how does stuff relate to our capacity to love? St Augustine tells us that “any lessening of concupiscience (the disordered and selfish desire for or attachment to things) means an increase in charity (generous love for others).” So the less our heart is crammed with stuff, the more room there is for people.     I want to relate this again to how we use our time. What has the time you spend dealing with your excess stuff (at least if you have too much of it like me) prevented you from doing for others? Perhaps volunteering at an old folks home, visiting a lonely relative, having a friend over who really could use a heart to heart chat, etc.     Or what does needing to constantly clean and organize prevent you from doing for yourself? Reading great books? Exercising? Meditating? Praying? Reflecting? Writing? Wouldn’t doing these things make you happier than trying to shuffle around the belongings you don’t know what to do with?     We don’t want to live caught on the surface of life, amidst our clutter. We want to go deeper, love better, ponder life’s meaning and find ways to nourish our souls. Having too much stuff can trap us in the superficial…so there’s only one solution: get rid of it and free yourself to live better!     I’ll write more on doing major decluttering soon, including insights from organizational master Marie Kondo’s book “the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.” Until then, all the best, and remember, you are not your stuff, you are so much more! Trimming the excess clutter will only free you up to be more yourself…