Monthly Archives: December 2014

How NOT to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions


By Lillian Csernica on December 31, 2014

 

 

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day.  Here in the U.S., we have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions.  I am not fond of this tradition. Last January I explained why.  I think my reasons are worth repeating.  For the benefit of regular readers and those folks I’m happy to count among my new followers, here is a repeat of that blog post:

The tradition of making a New Year’s resolution seems quite virtuous, but the endless jokes about people breaking their resolutions almost immediately shows the tradition is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Why is that so? I believe the New Year’s resolution has become an ugly epilogue to the happy glitter of the holiday season. The process of making and keeping the New Year’s Resolution is the Puritanical demand for the paying of the check, the return to sobriety, responsibility, and practicality. We’ve had our fun, now we have to go back to the dreary grind of everyday living. That we have to do so in the middle of winter sets us up for a psychological climate that is hostile and antithetical to the way human nature tends to cope with a cold, dark, dismal environment.

I know from my own experience that the physical and mental effort involved in taking down the Christmas tree and putting away all the various lights, ornaments, gift wrapping supplies, etc. can leave me and other people in no state of mind to take on some new effort. People need a break. The pressure to create and abide by the almighty New Year’s Resolution starts the New Year off with a guilt trip, which nobody enjoys taking.

Nothing much happens between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. That post-holiday lull creates a psychological environment where one has to work uphill to battle the natural emotional letdown. That makes it twice as hard to maintain enthusiasm and motivation for a new goal, especially a goal centered on self-improvement which also carries a certain element of guilt.

January is a cold, dark, depressing month. It also rains a lot. Hard to stay motivated when all we really want to do is keep warm, stay in bed, and eat comfort food. People who have a normal, healthy outlook on life can find the prospect of upholding their New Year’s Resolution daunting. Those of us with SADD or other mood disorders may find life even harder to struggle through.

For many people, all their financial outlay during the holidays catches up with them, creating a situation of stress, tightening the belt, and potential anxiety. Resolutions regarding one’s spending habits, sticking to a budget, creating a savings plan, etc. might be not just appropriate but necessary. Such resolutions are also at risk for crumbling in the face of the physical and emotional climate.

One of the key principles of Positive Deviance says, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” With that principle in mind, I believe that making New Year’s Resolutions is a process that’s doomed to fail because it hinges on the state of being resolved to do something. That means it’s all centered in the mind, in thought, in the resolution itself, as opposed to being grounded in physical actions that produce immediate tangible results. Instead of dwelling on the idea that I’m going to write one thousand words every day and triggering all the excuses, avoidance behaviors, and other genuine commitments to get in the way, I can just go to my desk at the appointed time, sit down and write. This is where free writing with a pen and notebook comes in very handy. It’s a lot less intimidating than composing at a keyboard and therefore much easier to just start doing.

By simply taking action, I break through the resistance that builds up around the mental component, the resolution itself. There will be the inevitable struggles with competing commitments and outside interruptions, but I know I can get up and walk to my desk. I know I can sit down and pick up my pen. I know I can move my hand across the page. I know I can write for a given amount of time or a given amount of words. I can take those physical actions, and I can do them every day.

A long time ago, I read something in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg that has remained a shining jewel of truth in all conditions of my life. That jewel is a statement made by Ms. Goldberg’s master of Zen Buddhism. He said, “When in doubt, take positive action for the good.” Feeling dejected by the weather and the post-holiday blues? Write those thank-you notes for the gifts you received. Expressing gratitude is one of the best ways to make yourself and other people feel better. Showing appreciation is a vital part of healthy relationships. Letting the other person know that you see the effort he or she has made and you value that effort can make all the difference.

The New Year is a time for optimism, for a new outlook and a fresh start. Instead of some huge resolution that weighs like a millstone around our figurative necks, why don’t we just take it one day at a time, doing our best to “take positive action for the good”? There are opportunities everywhere, from the desperate needs of disaster victims to the neighbor who could really use some small act of kindness. By doing so, we can turn the purpose of the New Year’s Resolution, that of self-improvement, into a much broader approach where we do what we can to improve life for everyone around us.

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Filed under charity, Depression, Family, Goals, love, Writing

Are We Having Fun Yet?


by Lillian Csernica on December 24, 2014

Here in the U.S. it’s Christmas Eve.  The gifts are wrapped.  The pies are baked.  The cats have been firmly discouraged from exploring the Christmas tree.

Now comes the hard part.  Relaxing.  Enjoying time with family.  Basking in that warm glow of togetherness.  I don’t know about you, but if I don’t keep busy, the Ghosts of Christmas Past will start floating into mind.  One common symptom of depression is recurring memories of past disappointments, sorrows, etc.  That’s a slippery slope.  If I don’t guard against those thoughts, I’ll end up riding a mental bobsled right down into the Pit.  I don’t want to go there.  It’s not that I want or expect to be all happy and chipper and just gushing with love for my nearest and dearest.  If I start acting like that, somebody needs to check my meds.  I just want to keep the peace.  Given that there are four other adults in the house (including Michael’s nurse) and we all have our issues, that isn’t as easy as it might sound.

Thank God for Christmas movies.  These are my favorites:

We pop one of those into the DVD/Blu-Ray player and two hours goes by while we share the laughs.  We don’t have to talk to each other beyond the occasional passing comment.

Dinner is a different matter.  Then we do talk.  We encourage John to share his thoughts on whatever the current subject might be.  Michael adds his two cents as well.  Then we clean up and scatter to our various computers, projects, books, or, on special occasions, maybe even a board game or two.  My sister gave John “Jenga Boom!” for his birthday.  The game never fails to make me yelp, which John and Michael both find highly entertaining.

If I sound gloomy, let me assure you that I’m not.  I’m just thinking out loud.  There’s a lot to be happy about right now.  In my previous post I mentioned the two stories that are due on 12/31.  They’re in!  I emailed them to the editor the day before yesterday.  She confirmed receipt.  I created those stories out of a handful of ideas and whipped them into shape in record time.  All this work during NaNoWriMo and now putting those two stories together makes me think I won’t need a New Year’s Resolution about productivity.  I know I can do this, and do it every day.  Garden of Lies is halfway written in roughdraft, so I’ll keep on plowing ahead.

The other day I was thinking about how many Christmases I’ve celebrated.  How many times I’ve put up trees, baked cookies, survived scouring the malls for the right gifts.  A lot of what happens during the holidays is familiar, so I don’t get all that excited about it anymore.  That’s OK.  There are still traditions that I love and I enjoy all the more now that my sons are here to enjoy them with me.  Decorating the Christmas tree, stuffing the boys’ stockings, and tonight’s treat, driving around looking at Christmas lights.  My neighbors are crazy.  I’m so happy we moved to this neighborhood.  These people really know how to whoop it up come the holiday season.

I’m tired, but that’s OK too.  The important activities have gotten done.  We’re ready for the quiet pleasures of Christmas Eve, and the rowdy joys of Christmas morning.

Wherever you are, whatever holy day you celebrate, I wish you good health, good fortune, and all the joys of the season.

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Filed under Christmas, Depression, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Family, Fiction, Goals, marriage, Self-image, Special needs, Writing

Meanwhile, Back at The Idea Factory….


By Lillian Csernica on December 16, 2014

Idea Factory

Many writers believe the secret to success is a strong deadline.  I agree.  A deadline forces me to get the story written, get the editing done, then cut and polish with ruthless efficiency.  I have two stories due on Dec. 31st.  Not just two stories, but two stories that have to fit the theme and word limit of the anthology project.  Each story has to take place within a one hour time limit.  What’s more, the two stories must relate to each other.  Does this sound like an impossible task?  I didn’t think so until I had to write the second story.  The first one was a lot of fun and wrote itself with a fair amount of ease.  Hah.  Never trust what you’re writing when it seems to be going too well.

Little did I realize I would find myself bound by my own worldbuilding rules.

Of course I know how this works.  I wrote The Writer’s Spellbook because magic as an element of worldbuilding is such a huge subject.  See, the tricky part here is the convergence between the anthology’s guidelines and the fantasy world in which my stories take place.  This is also my first real effort at steampunk, so that added another layer of research and complexity.  What’s that, you say?  Why on earth do I keep making this harder and harder on myself?

Because I am starting to accumulate a number of works that take place in the same historical period and involve some combination of the same countries and cultures.  There may come a time when I want to gather these works into a collection.  They might even blend together into one or more novels.  That means attention to detail now.  Besides, it’s just a matter of professional pride to do the absolute best work I possibly can.  I was invited to submit to this anthology.  To me that means working twice as hard to show my appreciation for the opportunity I’m being given.

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Does it sound like I’m being rather hush-hush about this project?  I am.  The work is going well.  I wrote the second story all in one go last night.  Took me a good week to figure out the plot.  I created two entire storylines, then had to discard each as pieces did not quite line up with the first story or with the overall thematic elements of the anthology.  I have in fact painted myself into a corner more than once.  Had to change paint, had to pick a new room, had to get out of that building entirely.  It’s painful to toss out what might be a perfectly valid idea, but “good enough” is not what I’m going for here.

The more rules the better, says I.  When I have very clear and specific guidelines from an editor and/or publisher, then several of the choices are already made.  Now I have to dream up the story elements that not only meet those requirements, they transcend them by avoiding the obvious, the predictable, the familiar.  Every other story in the anthology will follow the same guidelines I’ve been given.  I have to reach farther for something fresh, for colors and flavors and pain and discord that set my stories apart from the rest.

Time for me to go have a look at what I wrote last night.  There’s a whole lot of pressure.  I have fifteen days to make these two stories the best they can possibly be.  I normally go through five drafts on a short story.  I do not have that luxury, not on one story, and certainly not on two.  To say nothing of minor little tasks like making sure I get Christmas gifts bought and wrapped for my family, put up our tree, do the grocery shopping, and figure out plans for my sister’s birthday (Jan. 1) and my mother’s birthday (Jan.3).  If I’m lucky, I might even get some sleep!

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Goodwill Toward Everybody


By Lillian Csernica on December 13, 2014

I was in the Post Office the other day.  Like so many people, I spend a lot of time there during the holiday season.  While I was waiting in line, I witnessed behavior that made me understand how and why the phrase “going postal” has entered common usage.  A lot of it boiled down to Not Reading The Directions.  People had brought in packages they wanted to mail to the four corners of the earth.  Such packages must be sealed.  As in, the lid closes completely and you’ve sealed it with the correct kind of packaging tape.  Each step of this process is rife with potential for error.  Is that the right kind of box?  Is it the right size?  Did you use the correct type of tape?  Is the address correct, legible, and in the right place?  Then there’s the whole adventure of filling out the Customs form, if said package will be leaving the country.

When the postal clerks have to explain why the package cannot be accepted, people get all bent out of shape.  They want to do what they came to do and leave, regardless of the postal regulations that were created for the safety and security of the contents of that precious package, along with the people who come into contact with it.  Why is it people can’t just say, “Whoops!  Thanks for setting me straight.  I’ll go fix this.”  Instead they stand there and argue with the postal clerk.  They either don’t understand the problem, refuse to believe there is a problem, refuse to believe they have to correct the problem they created, or all of the above.  This can go on for several minutes while the rest of us stand there and watch our lives bleed away minute by valuable minute.

My sister told me a story about her adventures in the Post Office.  She was waiting in line.  A woman ahead of her had two of the big brown paper shopping bags with handles filled, and I mean FILLED, with Christmas cards that needed to be stamped.  Did this woman simply buy the required amount of stamps then step aside to a convenient counter and being processing her cards?  Nope.  The woman had opted for a particularly glittery and embossed Christmas card.  She was worried that some cards might be heavier than others.  This is a responsible concern.  She wanted to put the correct amount of postage on each card so they got to the people to whom they were addressed.  Did she step aside and go use one of the scales that are available in the lobbies of most post offices?  She did not.  My sister said she just knew what was coming.  The woman was going to expect the postal clerk to weigh every single one of those cards.  We’re talking dozens, mind you.  My sister said what really made her teeth grind was the way the woman got all miffed over some of the cards needing two stamps instead of just one.  Well gosh.  If you’re going to blow the kind of money on the really glitzy type of Christmas card, the kind that sells for at least twenty dollars and there are only eight cards in the package, then one would think you’d already accepted the minor detail of a hefty postage bill.  Once again, another argument, another refusal to be reasonable and considerate.  Another long line of people whose time was just as valuable and who didn’t appreciate having it wasted on a problem that could and should have been avoided.

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Is it really so hard?  Is it really that much of an effort to think ahead, to take advantage of all the online options available these days, to act in a manner that recognizes the feelings and schedules of the other people around you?  Example: waiting in line to check out.  I had several items in my cart.  A woman got into line behind me.  She had a handful of items, didn’t even need a hand basket.  So I motioned her to go ahead of me.  She was hesitant, asking if I was sure.  That’s polite.  I assured her I was fine for time.  We had a nice chat while we moved along toward the registers.  How much of a difference did that make to my overall day?  Maybe ten minutes.  How much of a difference did it make to my stress levels and to those of the woman ahead of me?  A huge difference.  We were out buying gifts for special people, relaxed and enjoying the moment together.

Now if it sounds like I’m bragging, I’m not.  I am not a patient person and I grumble to myself quite a bit over people that slow me down when it’s no big deal and I’m the one who’s overreacting.  I have learned that every moment is a choice.  I can choose to be miserable and spread that misery, or I can choose to be quiet and not add to someone else’s stress.  Now and then I have an opportunity to do somebody good.

Let’s think about this.  We’ve all had those moments when a total stranger has done something nice for us.  Held a door, let us go ahead in line, said something to lighten a difficult moment.  That moment of compassionate connection dispels the horrible feeling of being overwhelmed and isolated, just each of us against the whole world.  Somebody noticed we were having a rough day.  Somebody offered kind words or a helping hand.  Somebody took a moment out of his or her life to recognize our struggle and do something supportive.  What a powerful gift that can be!  I always shiver when I come across a story about someone who explains how there was One Person who made all the difference.  If not for that One Person, the man or woman who is telling the story would have committed suicide that day.  Quite often that One Person was aware of some problem, but had no idea things were so terrible that suicide was on the horizon.  We never know how what we do will impact the people around us, the people they interact with, the people years down the line that will never even know we existed.

I was raised to treat the elderly with respect and consideration.  Open doors, step aside and let them go through, give up one’s seat on the bus, train, etc.  These days when I do any of those things, the senior citizens react with surprise, even shock.  And then they smile.  They remember the old rules.  They were taught better manners than the general standard people seem to find acceptable these days.  When I acknowledge their status as my elders, and therefore deserving of respectful treatment, I restore to them the dignity of their position in society and I honor the fact that they’ve earned some special treatment from the rest of us.  This is the kind of world I want to live in.  This is how I hope to be treated once my hair goes gray all over and I need a cane or a walker.  If I don’t perpetuate that standard of behavior through my own actions, how can I possibly expect the coming generations to practice it or even know it exists?

So come on, folks.  Join me this holiday season in giving the gift of Goodwill Toward Everybody.  Slow down a little.  Take a breath.  Remember it’s not all about you.  When you meet people who obviously do think it’s all about them, remember Bob Cratchit, who has every right to despise Ebenezer Scrooge yet still wishes him well.  Why?  Because Bob Cratchit knows about the importance of true charity.  He refuses to sink to Scrooge’s level.  Keep in mind that Bob Cratchit is a special needs parent at a time when life is really grim even if you do have money for a doctor.  Bob Cratchit sees Tiny Tim as his role model, enduring his suffering with patience, never saying a bad word, and staying cheerful despite the family’s struggles.  Even if we accomplish nothing else for anyone else, we will have chosen the higher road for ourselves.  We will have made a commitment to compassion, to remaining the people we choose to be.

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Santa’s Workshop: Open for Business


By Lillian Csernica on December 8, 2014

Time once again for me to put on the Santa hat or the light-up reindeer antlers and begin my annual effort as a Volunteer Elf.  The first batch of letters to Santa has come in from my local post office.  Eight letters, which is pretty good for this early in the month.  I am well equipped with stationery, red envelopes, and an enormous pile of Christmas-related stickers.  That supply came to me thanks to my sister, who likes to hit me with great surprises like this.  She ordered six rolls from the Oriental Trading Company, which is THE place to go for good quality and good prices on holiday and party-related supplies.

I try to keep my Secret Identity as the person who handles the Santa letters pretty low key.  The newspaper did a story on me, which I allowed on the condition that they did not use my name.  They did anyway.  Argh.  Fortunately, I moved, so if anybody had wanted to find me, they can’t.  The post office folks are very protective of me and my privacy.  The number of people who know about my annual effort to preserve the magic of childhood has grown a bit year by year.  This year, people are already asking me what they can do to help.  One dear lady in my writer’s group has given me two gift certificates to a local art supply store.  Should letters cross my desk that ask Santa for art supplies, those kids are in for a dose of serious magic.

The real magic is giving without seeking anything in return, not even a “Thank you.”  It’s nice to see the kids’ faces light up when they find out Santa Claus is really listening.  That’s been my only condition in all the years I’ve been answering letters.  If the postal carriers see the kids open their letters, I want to hear all about how the kids reacted.  This somehow led to the parents giving the postal carriers gifts for me, gifts of appreciation for making their kids so happy.  The gifts were usually homemade goodies, which made them doubly difficult to refuse.  I did have to refuse them, by asking the postal carriers to express my sincere appreciation and my preference for not receiving such gifts.  I’m in this to make the kids happy.  That’s what I get out of it.

I want to break down what I do so I can encourage other people to become volunteers and keep the Benevolent Order of Santa’s Elves alive and well.

The primary source of the letters is the Post office.  The children post their letters to Santa Claus and they get routed to me.  If you want to volunteer, just go talk to the postmaster or postmistress and ask for the kit they give to volunteers.  It helps to be creative.  I keep a file on my computer of good ideas I’ve come up with over the years in response to the questions the children ask.  Such ideas come in very handy as we get closer to Christmas Eve and my brain starts to get a bit frazzled.  Speaking of Christmas Eve, it’s my personal policy to see to it all letters are answered by Christmas Eve.  Some years that’s taken a bit of doing, but the postal carriers are great about helping out.  Sometimes they’ve sent the “package truck” as it’s called out my way with the day’s incoming letters.  I’d have them answered and ready to go out when my postal carrier came by.  That, or I’d hit the post office in person to pick up or deliver.  If you’re going to do this, folks, understand that you’re entering into a very special relationship with the children who believe in Santa Claus.  Follow through on the commitment.  My worst fear is a child whose friends have gotten replies from Santa Claus but that one child has not.  Can you imagine the disappointment, the confusion, the hurt?  That’s not how Santa Clause takes care of business.

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You may also find that local charity organizations receive letters to Santa Claus from the children in the families such organizations help.  Another friend of mine in my writing group is in charge of the local food pantry that helps the homeless and other people in need.  She told me that as part of their intake program around the holidays they have the children write letters to Santa so the volunteers can do their best to get at least some of the items on those wish lists.  Last year my friend’s organization received two hundred and fifty letters to Santa Claus.  Can you imagine?  So many families are in so much need these days.  Toys for Tots does an amazing job every year.  Other charities do their best to provide at least something for the children of the needy to open on Christmas morning.  I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the occasional letter to Santa Claus that comes across my desk that stands out to me so strongly I do something about it.  I’m careful, I’m discreet, and I make sure what I do is appropriate.  For example, those gift certificates my friend gave me.  When I add one of those to the appropriate letter to Santa Claus, it will pass into the hands of a child who will suddenly believe wishes really can come true.  You never know what a chain reaction this can set off.  Perhaps that child will be inspired to donate some old toys to Goodwill or a local family shelter.  Perhaps there will be a delayed reaction, and that child will grow into an adult who remembers the kindness of the gift included in Santa Claus’ reply.

Let me address the issue of donations.  I’ve been very fortunate in that people who know about what I do have come forward and offered their assistance.  A few years ago I went out actively soliciting donations from business with whom I already had a relationship as a customer.  Toys R Us offered me ten per cent off anything in the store.  A local independent bookstore provided a gift certificate for a young lady who asked specifically for something from that particular bookstore.  All the manager wanted in return was a copy of the letter to Santa Claus.  That year I was able to go to the local charity that handles the most families in need and deliver a sack of toys, baby clothes, other items, and the donation of one hundred dollars from someone I will refer to as an anonymous benefactor.  The lady at the desk almost burst into tears.  It was quite close to Christmas Eve, and one hundred new families had just applied for assistance.

As I’ve said, various friends of mine have pitched in now and then with tangible items, offers of matching donations, and help with transportation.  You’d be amazed how many people are willing to lend a hand if you simply put out the word.  This time of year people are more prone to such generosity because we all remember being little kids who believed in Santa Claus.  Let it be known that you welcome any assistance people want to provide, but don’t ask unless you get a letter with a specific request you think you can meet in an appropriate way.

The bottom line is, do whatever you can do.  Whenever I go to the local Dollar Tree, I make sure I pick out a gift to give to a child.  At the register I tell the clerk that item is for the children of the military, and it goes into a special collection box.  These gifts are for children who have one or more parents on active deployment.  I really want to do what I can to see to it Santa Claus shows up for them.

Times are tough.  We have to take care of each other.  If you do choose to volunteer to help answer the letters to Santa Claus, please do so right away.  I guarantee there are letters waiting to be answered, and the more volunteers, the more children will receive replies.  If you have questions about any of this, I will do my very best to answer them, or at the very least point you to where you can find the answers.  Thank you, and God bless us, every one!

P.S.  This is the 300th post in my blog.  Woo hoo!

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Filed under charity, Christmas, Family, Food, Goals, love, Special needs, Writing