Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Spirit of Christmas

There are seven more days until Christmas morning, and for the first time in years my shopping is done! I am still writing cards, but otherwise I am just going about my normal routine while everyone else seems to be frantic (as I used to be in years gone by). At this point in my life I’ve had enough Christmases to know how to find my way through the craziness that seems to always come with the first carole you hear on the radio ~ the day after Thanksgiving.

It’s all about buying just the right gifts for everyone on your list and, whether you can afford it or not, don’t forget yourself ~ something really hot, like the latest (this week) in technology or maybe even that new car you’ve been thinking about. Go on, charge it ~ the bill will come next month, next year! Everyone is in debt ~ it’s no longer a shame, but part of life. Eventually everything will get better, but now there’s nothing like something new and snappy to make you ~ and your loved ones ~ feel good!

I don’t decorate as much as I used to ~ my children are grown and have families and homes of their own. I do have outdoor lights, but once inside there is only a small artificial tree and an occasional holiday garland creatively wrapped around a battery-operated candle.

Here in California, the weather doesn’t exactly put me in a holiday mood so it is easy to go about my normal routine amidst the crowds and not once feel like it is Christmas. This was how I felt this morning as I drove to my neighborhood Costco to purchase just three items I had forgotten to get last weekend. There’s a radio station I listen to that plays a variety of my favorite songs, and during December they throw in a Christmas song or two. Didn’t hear anything special as I guided my car cautiously through the Costco parking lot, finally finding a spot quite a ways from the store. Oh, well, the walk will do me good ~ I need the exercise ~ I said to myself as I parked and headed toward the front door. I was not prepared for what was inside.

I think everyone had the same schedule this morning ~ head for Costco! I had to slow down at the entrance because of all the people walking in. I wasn’t looking forward to the aisle traffic ~ people carelessly pushing their carts into other people or stopping dead in their tracks right in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to others. But today was different. Today, rudeness took the day off. So did thoughtlessness. Hard to believe that in Costco on the last weekend before Christmas! It was, however, almost magical ~ considering the fact that the place was packed and carts were overflowing ~ that there were smiles and manners and such friendliness that was until now practically unknown within those walls.

People were saying “Excuse me!” Strangers were chatting with strangers! I stepped over to pick up a 36-pack of green tea bottles and a man from out of nowhere rushed over and lifted it out of my hands into my cart. I smiled and thanked him; he smiled back. I got through the store in no time, and even sampled some goodies as I guided my cart through the crowd. Arriving at the front check-out counters, I noticed that every one of them was open, and employees were helping customers load their items onto the belts that carried them toward the checkout clerks. The man who helped me was friendly and chatty, as though I was the only one there. He didn’t seem to mind that hundreds of other customers were heading toward the counters, and without rushing he was efficient and I breezed through in no time. Everyone was happy!

This just never happens. Costco is a great place to shop, but usually when customers get inside they forget others. They usually don’t smile. And they certainly don’t pay attention to others needing help!

As I left the store, the last person I encountered was a gentleman checking my receipt against what I had in my cart. He looked up and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas,” I replied. “Oh! Yes! Merry Christmas to you too!” he answered. All the way to the car I noticed how nice everyone was being to one another. And when I finally backed my car out of my parking place and headed toward the lot exit, an oncoming car stopped and motioned me to go ahead.

A Christmas song suddenly came on the radio as I pulled my car onto the busy street. Maybe I never paid such attention to my trips to buy groceries before; what caused me to notice this nice experience? And then it occurred to me. The spirit of Christmas had just paid me a visit!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Golden Years? Not Always!

I got a call from an old friend the other day who is retiring from her job. Actually, she is apparently being dragged, kicking and screaming, from a job she enjoys and which fills her life as she knows it. She is of the age to retire, so fortunately she has a pension on which to exist. However ~ and that’s a big however ~ it seems the pension, which her other support staff co-workers in our local city offices also have, will be barely enough to pay all her bills each month, and will not leave her enough after that to have the life style she has enjoyed over the past few years. Her Social Security benefits, she found out at her recent meeting down at the local Social Security office, will be under $500 a month because for over 25 years she did not contribute to it (as a city employee she could not, but frankly at the time she enjoyed having that extra amount to spend or salt away as she chose). And withdrawn out of that amount will be her costs for Medicare and supplemental insurance.

My friend doesn’t look old enough to retire. On top of having had a very well-done eye-lift about 10 years ago, she has kept in shape through exercise and good diet. She is attractive, fun to be around, and is generally still capable of performing her duties in the office with people who like and respect her work and personality. The fact that these are hard times in the work force is salt in her wound ~ it doesn’t change things. She cannot argue that they could no longer afford her. But the icing came when she learned her replacement is a 20-something who, while she will earn much less, is technologically much more savvy. Training her was a joke, she says.

Her situation, and our conversation about it, really affected me because my view of retirement is so vastly different from hers ~ and, I realize, everyone’s view is skewed by personal circumstances. In her case, she is seriously depressed over it. She and I used to work together and in fact we lived next door to one another when our children were growing up. Both of us have been single quite a few years, so I thought she had adjusted to being responsible for her own welfare and therefore her own happiness. I know her well, and so I assumed she would be as happy as I was over the prospect of not having to produce for others, not having to jump out of bed at an ungodly hour and figure out what to wear and how to face the workday, rain or shine. To her, this was reason alone for getting out of bed at all. She feels she has no prospects for volunteer work that will enhance her value of self and feels that she will quickly run out of “things to do” on a daily basis. Not one to watch television during the day, she fears this will be her only option to pass the time. She will not have money to travel, nor even shop for unnecessary items. She will be available 24/7 to spend time with her grandchildren ~ whom she adores, but at an arm’s distance (she often says she put in her time as chief cook and bottle washer, Brownie leader, team mom, and so on, and she had no regrets about ending that chapter when her children left for college). She loves to bake cookies with her granddaughters, and then wave goodbye so she can clean up her kitchen.

What do you do when a dear friend is so sad? When there really is nothing you can say to cheer her? I guess I did not realize how fortunate I am ~ to have planned wisely, with a lot of luck, to have a carefree life at a time when I would no longer have the ability to change my situation. I have learned that life doesn’t just “happen” to us, and I had to go through a hellish time in my late 40s and early 50s to allow myself the privilege to “see” the possibilities, and the potholes, that lay ahead. I was the ant; my friend was the grasshopper.

Fortunately, my friend’s future is not as cut and dried as she perceives. In thinking this through, she does have options, and I was able to give her a couple of pieces of solicited advice: First, get it fixed in your head that your life has changed ~ accept it. Next, be open ~ eyes and heart ~ to the possibilities that exist to improve it. Just like we now need a good jar opener just to get into products off the shelf, we need to find ways to cope with this new life ~ because it is what it is and we have to learn to live with it. But I have great respect for her and I realize we each have to find our way in our own time and on our own terms. I hope she can do it ~ she is much too valuable a person and friend to give up and be so unhappy.