Wednesday, August 31, 2011

on second thought.....

 maybe for a while I'll just blog about things for which I don't need visual aids ....

I only had one grandparent. Of course, there were officially three others, but as far as memories go I really only clearly remember my paternal grandmother. She didn't bake. There were never any delicious snacks at her house. In fact, the only special food I can remember eating at her house was store-bought dinner rolls (and those she always burned!). At Christmas - until her stroke made shopping impossible - she FILLED huge bags with presents for each of us kids....but I no longer recall or own a single item that she gave me. What I loved best about my grandmother - and still possess in detailed memories - were the sleepovers at her house. An enormous hammock hung between two old trees in her yard; she would line it with abundant soft quilts and thick pillows for my sister and I to enjoy all afternoon. We were given total freedom to poke through all of her drawers and closets, "organizing" her vast stores of costume jewelry and Mary Kay cosmetics. In the evenings, when her house was dimly lit and cozy, her cat would come out of hiding. Then she would tuck us in to magnificently made beds and with her fingers she would draw letters on our backs for us to guess. The beds in her house were lovely- big wooden beds raised up high. The sheets were smoother and cooler than any others in the world and there were so many wonderful blankets atop. Unlike our own house, her bedrooms did not have carpets but her kitchen and bathroom did. I thought it was all enchanting and I still remember the way each room smelled, including the basement, even though I've not been in that house for these 15 years since she passed away.

I now often wish I had one piece of the costume jewelry that filled her chest drawers or one of the little animal figurines that used to line the shelves of her house, but I do not. Of all those bags filled with Christmas gifts, nothing remains. But there was one gift of a different sort. When I was a teenager she sent me to Europe. There was a school trip and she paid for a large portion of my ticket. Other than New Zealand, it's the only time I've left North America. I took it a bit for granted at the time but the memories of Rome, Assisi, Monaco and Madrid became more valuable to me as I matured. I outgrew (and discarded) all those toys, clothes and games - they lost all value to me - but my appreciation of my grandmother's sleepovers and the European experience has increased with time. The point I'm getting at tonight is that I've been thinking more and more about the gift of experiences, not things.

Now, I do need to preface this all by admitting that I was the kind of child who, when asked for a Christmas list for Santa, invariably produced a piece of paper with only the words "blackboard chalk" written on it. My parents must have relied on my siblings' lists for inspiration as they shopped for their eldest because in the end there was always an abundance of gifts under the tree for me as well. Unlike my grandmother's presents, I do remember quite a number of these. But I don't own them anymore either. What I do own - and very much so - is again intangible....memories and formative experiences and nonmaterial expressions of love: the annual winter trip to see The Nutcracker in Manhattan with my mother and the hours spent in the basement with my father building a long-desired wooden dollhouse. It took us so long to finish that house that I was almost past the age of playing with it when it was complete, but the dollhouse for me was precious for the journey, not the destination - those hours in the basement with my dad all to myself. I fixed up the 20 year old dollhouse for Maria's 2nd birthday. My daughters have thus benefitted not only from the legacy of HopPop's dollhouse but also from Yowee's passion for The Nutcracker. My girls had their first taste of the tradition when Maria was two and Bernadette was only five months old. (It was a bit brainless bringing two babies to a highbrow event at Lincoln Center but both watched silently in rapt attention and are still performing in tutus to Tchaikovsky almost daily). I'm amazed at the power of the gift of experiences, not things even in children so young.

I've lived in eleven different "homes" since I turned 18, moved thirteen times into various dorm rooms, cramped apartments, to a tiny two bedroom "starter house" and then finally to the furthest point of the globe. Frequent moving and tight quarters have only exacerbated my passion for getting rid of all unnecessary, unused or unuseful items. I'm not sentimental about stuff. Having to pack up, transit, unpack, store, sort, organize, clean, launder, put away, tidy and pick up the worldly possessions of just one person helped me to realize that "stuff equals time" and that the less stuff I own, the more time I have. Multiplying this by a husband and three children has only underscored that truth. Moving to New Zealand placed several exclamation points near it. Stuff equals chaos. We packed the bare minimum to come here, or so we thought, and have found that even that was too much. If it's not regularly worn, read, played with or used, it's given to someone who will appreciate it. Except Richard's stuff. I would never covertly cut up his holey, raggedy, frayed, favorite old sweatshirts to make rags for cleaning the bathroom counters. Never. I think robbers must steal them.

My graduate school roommate entered a convent several years ago - of all the gifts given her throughout a lifetime, all she now possesses are those which were experiences, not things. Hurricane Irene sent a mini-tsunami into my newlywed sister's beachfront home, sparing, I hope, at least some of her week-old wedding gifts. Jesus reminds us that moth and rust will consume the bulk of our treasure and that our focus us best spent on the kind of treasure that will last. When each of us is "packing a suitcase for a place that none of us has been - a place that has to be believed to be seen" the gifts we'll be retaining through eternity will be experiences, not things. I like that. I'm amazed that you can take it with you as long as it is not really an "it". It's inspiring.

Richard and I have been giving this all a lot of thought, as anyone would while on a two year vacation from almost all of their stuff. We've been talking a lot about how we want to approach stuff when we return home - for the sake of simplicity and order - for the sake of not raising "committed little materialists" (a quote from a wonderful parenting book we've been enjoying by Andrew Mullins) - for the sake of having more time, more meaning in our lives and more fun as a family. We've talked a lot about making "experiences, not things" the guideline in our gift-giving to our children and we've brainstormed about all different kinds of experiences based on the interests of each family member: from the simplest hikes and ice cream store trips and bowling excursions and duck pond visits - to the more expensive ballet lessons and theatre tickets and family vacations. Of course, there is legitimate joy in unwrapping a beautiful present and we won't want to deny our children (or ourselves!) that pleasure, but we hope to swim strongly against the cultural tide in terms of frequency, quantity and extravagance. We believe that it will actually heighten the pleasure of receiving simple gifts and serve as an antidote for the ingratitude and endless desire so common to the materialistic spirit of our era. Our point is to focus on making memories and building relationships, on formation and culture, on simplicity and appreciation. Getting a really clear vision for this has been an awesome grace of our mission time. Part of the appeal of this two year mission was the opportunity to step completely out of our normal lifestyle and then, with the perspective that time and space and grace have offered, to reevaluate everything. 

In the vein of experiences as gifts, Richard's 30th birthday presents included a planned guys-only excursion to Taupo for bungee-jumping, followed by tickets to a World Cup Rugby game (all Fr. Michael's idea). I'm happy for him about the Rugby. I hate the bungee jumping part. I had thought long and hard about what Richard would want most and I realized it was to see the South Island. And so he shall. He'll fly in the cockpit with his friend Paul (a commercial pilot) and then spend 10 days exploring arguably the most beautiful and varied terrain on the planet. And then he will come home just in time to try to think of an equally amazing experience, not thing to give to his wife on October 25th. But he knows deep down that if he gets desperate, she's always thrilled with peppermint chapstick. Or blackboard chalk.


  1. Beautiful memory and very nicely written You are so talented . I pray, God, please keep helping Joseph. Love, his yowee

  2. Exquisitely put and so inspiring! This year, we took our children on day-long family outings for their birthdays instead of having birthday parties, and it was so rewarding we decided to make it a tradition. Thank you for the further insights on how to stretch it into other areas! We are SO encouraged by Joseph's good news... God bless you all! Maura & Shaun