Gifts are something we start thinking about at this time of year.
We fret about finding perfect gifts for the people in our life.
Free gifts and special offers abound. Things can, and often do, get kind of crazy. By December it’s hard to see the wood for the Christmas trees, vis a vis why we’re doing what we’re doing.
I think of it as being placed, reluctantly, in the luge track (or perhaps the head first Skeleton would be more apt) for the festive season. We’re tucked in and about to head off at breakneck speed. Some days will just go by in a blur, until we end up in a crumpled heap on Boxing Day, wondering how on earth we got here.
In short, there seems to be little time for reflection during the holiday season. I’m about to strap myself in for the festive ride. In fact, I’ve already sent newsletters of my own about special offers and free gifts in my online shop, for people looking to buy gifts for others.
Which got me thinking about the nature of gifts. Gifts that you can’t buy.
Of course there are many of these. Love. Friends. Family. Music. Nature. Health.
But, particularly at this crazy time of year, one of the most precious gifts is stillness.
I am a bit of a “doer” in my personal and creative life. I tend to just keep moving and doing until I’m too tired to do any more. I think I get this from both of my parents, who seemed to be constantly making, fixing, knitting, cooking or cleaning.
In some ways this is great, but it makes it hard to be “in the moment”. I find my mind insistently wanders to tasks ahead when I’m doing yoga or trying to meditate. Or even sleep.
But I finally discovered one way to stop the mind spinning and quiet the “lists”.
In 1999 my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and I’d hardly got my bearings after that. My dad lived in the UK. I lived in Canada with my husband, and two small children. Thanks to the great kindness of a friend, who gave me three business class trips to the UK, I was able to visit him often during his last year. When the end came, he didn’t want to die in hospital, so my last trip was not just to visit, but to nurse him at home. It was a remarkable time. My brain, I believe, actually melted a bit under the stress of fatigue and worry about him, and about the family I had abruptly left behind in Vancouver.
I slept on the floor by his bed and was awake every hour or so. For one hour a day, a nurse came in to bathe him and to give me a break. The time was not really enough to have a nap and, if I tried, my mind just raced with a competing derby of thoroughbred worries. So, instead, I took to going for walks in the countryside around the house.
On those walks, everything seemed magnified in significance and beauty. I believe that the sheer stress of grief, responsibility, and tiredness forced my eyes open in a new way.
Things that I would not have noticed before seemed truly incredible. The rusted and contorted barbed wire on the farmer’s fence seemed to somehow symbolize the struggle that my dad was going through. Every old stone wall, piece of moss and crumpled leaf seemed full of meaning. I may just have been delirious from lack of sleep, but that experience stayed with me long after he died.
In a way, it was Dad’s last gift.
It permanently changed how I look at the world.
When things are spinning out of control, I’m still an epic failure at traditional meditating. But walking and looking really closely at the things around me (which for me, involves photography) can slow things down to a peaceful pace, or even a momentary full stop.
All the lists and the worries can be briefly put to one side. For a few moments everything is still, and all that is beautiful and wonderful in nature is perfectly encapsulated in that one piece of rust or lichen, the sheen of a bird feather, the visual poetry of shadow or, the hop, skip and jump of a crow. It’s like being in a cathedral, even if it’s, geographically, an urban alley or a forest trail.
Amid the holiday shopping, menu planning, house decorating, travel plans, and social life scheduling, it’s worth taking the time to give yourself a few of these small gifts every day. To look deeply at something (not in a shop) and think to yourself “wow”.
And then move back into the slipstream of your day, but carry the “wow” with you.