Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tokens Of Love

My extended family strives to stay out of the commercial frenzy part of the holidays. Long ago, we agreed to limit ourselves to a strict $5 per person budget, with a special star being placed on handmade gifts. For the past several years, I've taken this a little further by trying to do my holiday shopping on foot. It started the year Seattle was hit with a rare, large snowstorm, followed by a freeze that turned the roads into ice for a week. That year, the family hiked to our little Columbia City neighborhood shopping district and found something for everyone. While the news was full of gloom and doom about how all the large retailers were going to really suffer, those small, family-owned retailers told me that business for them was through the roof. What we lost in having access to this year's trendy gifts and deeply discounted prices, was more than made up for by knowing we were part of keeping our Main Street businesses around for another year.

If you've read more than a handful of posts here, you've probably sussed out that I really don't like to be told what to do, I don't like to be tricked, and I especially don't like being told to worry or fear or panic for no good reason. I don't really mind that holiday decorations start going up right after Halloween, we live in the northern tier, it's nice having the extra lights, but few things get under my skin more than advertisements and articles that start hyperventilating about "Last Minute Shopping Ideas" a month out. I despise the whole countdown business: "Only 17 more shopping days until Christmas." I might sometimes start working on my handmade gifts well in advance, but it's a conscious act of rebellion that I leave the shopping until December 23. Yesterday, I left home without a list, started at the local independent hardware store, wandered up to Belltown to the market area, cut up through the crowded retail core to Capital Hill, then down through the Cascade neighborhood where I stopped in at REI, all the while thinking of my loved ones. When my back pack was full I went home.

The temperatures were seasonable, the skies were clear, yet there was a gusty wind that made the tails of scarves whip about behind people. I love the yellow color and stark angle of the light in Seattle this time of year as the sun passes it's noontime position and arcs toward the horizon. I poked my nose into shops I'd never seen before and many more that have been there forever. I chose the places that I like to shop like the Army-Navy surplus and the Pike Place Market stalls. I bought chocolates at the venerable  Bavarian Meats and lunched on one of their brats on a bun with kraut and mustard. I avoided all lines, several times returning merchandise to the shelves when I saw the wait would be more than a couple people: queuing up to spend money is one of those things that remind me of the brevity of life, a worthy topic, but an aggravation I was choosing to forego.

Given the amount of terrain I covered, there were long gaps of time during which I was walking on sidewalks without storefronts and with few other pedestrians, time I spent pondering the people for whom I was hunting and gathering, reflecting on the ways they have made me the man I am today, thoughts that easily drifted to those other people, outside my family who have shaped me. I thought of teachers and old girlfriends, buddies and bosses, colleagues and neighbors. Then I began to make a list. Could I come up with 5-10 of the most influential people, family aside, who have come into my life?

I thought of a lot of folks who were there during periods of evolution and moments of epiphany, who were with me as I became more of this and less of that, who assured me when I was down, and cheered for me when I was up. I started by thinking it would be a short list, but it grew exponentially as I walked in that bright yellow late afternoon, late winter light, sweating with the weight of the gifts in my backpack and the effort of trudging up our famous hills. Thoughts turned to myself as a preschool teacher, the role for which I'm now best known, Teacher Tom, and I wondered if my students would one day include me in their own list, but knowing they would not, although their parents might.

Every year, sometimes every day, parents will thank me for what I've done for their child or their family, an outpouring that often comes during this season of gifts and gratitude. Some give me credit for incredible things, things that I know their children were born to do or become in spite of, not because of, me, because they are the things most children finally learn. I want to tell them, "No, your child would have overcome his shyness all on his own," or "She was already going to learn to stop excluding her friends," or "Every child learns that, with or without me," but I don't. There was a time I tried, but it wound up hurting their feelings, robbing them of the joy they derived from thanking me. I've learned that I ought not correct them because what they are thanking me for isn't that I taught them or steered them or lead them, but rather that I had the patience to simply be with them and their children as they went through their periods of evolution and arrived at moments of epiphany. 

My list of people who truly shaped me wound up very short, and in fact, may only honestly consist of members of my family who really did serve as role models, guides, and teachers. The rest gave me a different gift, the one of their presences and patience, of being there with me as I explored and floundered and finally discovered, of being a part of my life as I went from one place to another, growing in ways I was destined to grow, not shaping me, but supporting me, and, as I see now, growing along with me until our paths diverged. And that's all we can ever do for other people, be there with them, and occasionally remind them to not panic, to not be afraid, the journey is long, and for now I'm with you and you are with me.

That's what the commercialism really robs us of this time of year. The drum beat of the season creates a kind of panic or mania, one that consumes us even as we are driven to consume. I wrote a couple days ago about the metaphorical purpose of winter, which is to reflect and to dream, something that simply cannot exist in shopping malls and parking lots. 

For a time I will be with you and you will be with me, and while we are together we will become who we are. And in between we walk alone, backpacks full with the tokens of love we have collected on our journey.

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