Well, tonight we finished off our Thanksgiving “leftovers” and Christmas is right around the corner. Thanks to the premature holiday zealotry that this part of the country seems so fond of, I’ve been thinking about Christmas since before Halloween. For many of us, this time of year really brings into sharp focus how very fortunate we are. It’s a time during which we think of the many, many people out there, perhaps right around the corner, who are struggling and suffering. I haven’t always been in tune with this aspect of the season, and I just wanted to talk a bit about the devolution and evolution of my perspective on charitable giving.
I’ll start off by saying I used to be a self-proclaimed “non-believer” in charity and charitable giving. That particular perspective endured throughout my twenties, and prior to that I was more or less oblivious to charitable endeavors beyond the scope of the annual canned food drives my various schools held growing up. It developed out of a close identification with the novel Atlas Shrugged, and anyone familiar with Ayn Rand and her rationalism philosophy knows that she “[didn't] believe in charity.” Now, I’m not sure that’s completely true (her foundation offers a scholarship) but I latched onto that idea and ran with it. Over the years I questioned it, but ultimately used it as an excuse not to think about my duty (if such a thing exists) to my fellow man. I’ve always known deep down that I was denying and avoiding a truth that my heart could not completely abandon.
The truth is, I do care about people and I do empathize with their suffering. I know it sounds ridiculous and cliche, but I believe I have an especially strong ability to empathize with the suffering and struggles of others when I allow myself to be aware of them. What I mean by that is, I find it effortless to immerse myself in tragic stories of virtually any kind. Because of that, I intentionally do not read or watch the news. I avoid books from Oprah’s book club. I avoid films that I know to be tragic…in fact, I avoid most films that aren’t kids’, action, or comedy. All of those things usually turn me into a blubbering mess at the drop of a hat, and furthermore I usually go into a depressed funk for periods of time ranging from a few days to several weeks. I’ve been ridiculed for being oversensitive and for overreacting, and over the years I’ve created some very effective ways of coping with that, such as blocking my emotional response, the aforementioned avoidance, and the aforementioned “philosophy” that I adopted. Then something happened that changed everything. I became a mom. And honestly, I was primed for paradigm shift thanks to my former coworker Pete, who had been heavily involved in charitable work and who tirelessly debated the value of charity with me on those slow days at work. Furthermore, I was turned on to a couple of bloggers by my Aunt-In-Law Robin that earned my respect early on, and with serendipitous timing after I became a parent, opened my eyes to what one person can accomplish and just how easy it is to touch a less fortunate stranger’s life in a positive way. Those bloggers are Virginia of That’s Church and Michelle of The Burgh Baby. Of course, both of these women have touched MANY lives. From helping save orphans in Haiti, to a project to improve the lives of sick children in the hospital, to the most awesome Christmas fundraiser & toy drive, they’ve really lit the fire of accountability in me in the past year or so since I was made aware of their blogs.
It’s funny how (for me at least) the arrival of my child was also the arrival of my greatest love in all of existence. I can never overstate this love for my child. People talk about God’s love and their love of God. That’s how I feel about my daughter…and soon how I will feel about my son too. Whatever evidence of the divine exists, I see it embodied in her and I felt it in her coming into existence. Feeling like that about someone who is just learning about the world really throws one’s beliefs into perspective. I want my daughter to empathize with her fellow man. I want her to nurture kindness in her heart, a heart that isn’t bent on material possessions, or any kind of possessiveness, for that matter.
*Tangent: when I say fellow man I mean women too, it’s just easier and less awkward to keep the language simple and sexist. Kidding! You know what I mean though, right?*
Anyway! I have become hyper-aware of the fact that I am now the primary role model for the most important person in the (my) world. I was especially aware tonight at dinner when I said “shit” in casual conversation with James and off to my right I heard the soft, sweet echo “sit” coming from the innocent lips of my daughter. Oopsie. But where was I…being a role model.
Last Christmas, my first Christmas as a momma, James and I decided to approach the business of gift-giving in a whole new way. We started what we hope will be a tradition in our family. We drastically cut back our gift-giving budget and made a large (for us) contribution to a charitable organization instead. We gave a lot less than we usually do to our friends and family so that we could sponsor a cleft palate surgery through Smile Train. We also learned about an organization called Heifer International, and we’ve tried to incorporate periodic donations to them at times in lieu of gifts. Both of these organizations have great programs, in my opinion, and if you’re looking to improve lives, I think they have great potential to satisfy in that regard. We felt great about our decision and we got lots of good feedback from our family and friends. We hope this tradition will help instill a sense philanthropy in our children, and over the years I would love to incorporate more philanthropy into our lives by offering not just money but our time and talents for the benefit of those less fortunate. Parents magazine ran a great article on their website suggesting ways to give this holiday season as part of their nifty feature/newsletter “100 Days of Holidays.” I think soup kitchens are on everyone’s radar around Thanksgiving time, but there were a couple of other ideas that I tend to forget about unless reminded.
As part of all this remodeling of our Christmas habits, we discussed paring down the amount of gifts and setting a precedent early on for the level of consumerism we would indulge in every year for the kids. Finally I get to the original reason for this post. Things have fallen apart for me this year. I mean, they sort of have. I fully intend to maintain our new tradition of charitable giving because I love Smile Train and I love that we can afford to give something so complete, so life-changing, and so meaningful as a cleft palate surgery to a poverty-stricken child. We will again scale back our gift-giving budget for family and friends…except that I’m having a reeeeeally hard time scaling back what I want to get for Dagny. The only thing we have really splurged on is her winter clothes. And honestly, she had no season-appropriate clothes that fit her. So I don’t think that really counts. I guess I haven’t really unleashed my raging consumerist tendencies much since she was born. We’ve bought a lot of things secondhand and many things I intend as “Christmas gifts” for her this year were purchased via craigslist or at various thrift stores. However. There is a rather long list of items that just don’t pop up on craigslist or in thrift stores often enough that I want to give her. We are talking about a serious breakdown of my last year’s notion to gift each child with one moderately priced item from each parent, along with a few stocking stuffers, and an annual ornament…to the tune of several hundred dollars worth of stuff I have my eye on. Yeah. Wince.
I don’t know what happened. Ok. I do sort of know what happened. Last year it was easy to say, “oh yeah, we’ll just get them one or two toys” because Dagny wasn’t even sitting up at the time. Her interests and personality were as yet, unrevealed.
This year, on the other hand, she is at a stage of development that I can only describe as a nuclear explosion of personality, communication, and physical abilities. Combine that with the fact that we haven’t really bought any toys for her since before she turned 1, due to the big move from Denver to Pittsburgh. So, developmentally she is pretty much beyond all of her toys. And as I’ve realized of late, that is a recipe for a very curious toddler. She is into EVERYTHING, most especially the kitchen cabinets and drawers…EVEN THOUGH they are childproofed. There are also the beeps and lights that she can manipulate on the oven and dishwasher. Precarious furnishings that she takes pleasure in climbing on. And I should take her outside more often*, but I won’t lie, this pregnancy is a great excuse…and in my opinion a valid excuse…not to subject myself to chasing Dagny around the yard, making sure she isn’t trying to sample a nugget of deer poop or eat an acorn or a rock or run out into the street. Especially at this late stage of the game, and now that it’s pretty chilly outside. There’s also the fact that if we don’t manage to get some outside time in during the golden window of time between breakfast and lunch that I use for running errands, it’s darn near dark as night by the time she wakes up from her nap. So she’s bored. I know this. I’ve found a couple things to help, like the Thursday library thing we go to. OK, one thing. I’d love to get involved with some swimming stuff, especially because being in a pool is mighty relieving for a woman of my size and level of gestation. Also because Dagny has taken to “swimming” in the bathtub. She actually calls it swimming. She lays down on her tummy and plays with her toys, it’s really pretty adorable. So yeah, all of this is sounding like a great excuse for me to go balls-to-the-wall crazy with her Christmas presents. I mean, everything is on sale! Everyone else is doing it! The sheer number of just the secondhand “presents” is pretty high. And I haven’t even really started with the new stuff. Sigh. I totally didn’t see this coming. I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be not to give her anything she wants along with everything she needs. And believe me, the word needs can become pretty subjective in this world of “Your Baby Can Read” and “my 14 month old can do calculus and is fluent in 6 languages.” So, that is my latest first world dilemma. I am losing this battle with myself, big time. And it doesn’t help that baby bro is coming very soon and Dagny really does need some stuff that engages her (for both our sakes) and doesn’t involve sitting in her beanbag drooling at the TV. At least she’s learning ASL during all that drooling time though. Problem is, I think now she knows more signs than I do.
Finally something NEW to explore!
*I’ll tell you how I know. Because every time we leave the confines of the house she says, bobbing up and down, with a huge grin and wide eyes, “ruh ruh rou” (ou as in ouch and loud and about.) Translation: “run around.” She says it when I tried to put her in the car, when we take out the trash. She says it in the highchair when we’re out to eat. She says it in the cart when we go grocery shopping every week. She wants me to let her run around and I feel terrible because I barely ever do.
At least her Daddy takes her outside to ruh ruh rou on the weekends...