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the shortest day...the longest night

December 2009

by Michael O’Brien

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice. On this day the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky at noon for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

I think about the druids at Stonehenge, seeing this alignment between heelstone and the solstice marker, announcing with confidence that the days will get longer and longer now, the depths of winter will slowly end.

I think about this a day after taking a warm nap on the back porch. After a whirlwind of last minute shopping, miraculously walking into the last store and finding just the right gift (I hope) and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate…(I held back on that.). It was good to get home and lie quietly in the last hours of sunlight, a cool breeze, the sweetness of air from Canada, and the warm sun...winter days spent like this are some of the best days in Texas.

Meanwhile, my daughters are digging out the car in NYC, preparing for what I hope will be a safe, uneventful day-long drive to Virginia. The road reports are a bit better, but I won’t relax until I hear that they have safely arrived.

This will be my second Christmas without them, and no I’m not used to it yet, but I’ll see them soon and we’ll recreate Christmas as best we can. I remember them on Christmas mornings, so eager to receive when they were little, so eager to give gifts as they grew older. I remember I realized this a few years ago, and felt proud at the thought of the good people they grew to be.

“It’s better to give than receive” … a simplification of the Biblical version, but deeply meaningful. It’s a turning point in the life of a child I think; one of those key moments of realization that caring for others can warm one’s heart. There’s a moment just before you give a gift. You hope it’s right. You hope it’s welcomed. You hope you haven’t overstepped, haven’t under-thought. You hope you listened to them closely enough, you’ve thought about what would bring them comfort, joy. You look for that pop in their eyes when they realize what the gift is, the “how did you know?” wonder, the spontaneous hug….

I remember the fear of the negative response, finding the gift in the donation bag next to the front door a few days later, or in the trash can….

Gifting is tricky.

You can see that receiving a gift also takes some thoughtfulness…. You can’t force the real reaction; it has to just happen. It’s not hard though, if a person can relax, meet the eyes of the person offering, hold the gift in front of you, open it with energy, meet their eyes again, look down, and be amazed. Smile, knowing you were in the giver’s thoughts, when they made their list, as they saved up, went place to place seeking it, or the parts to make it, as they stood in line, as they put it together, wrapped it, and wrote the tag, placed it beneath the tree on Christmas Eve, dug for it Christmas morning and handed it to you, eyes bright with anticipation. You feel their care for you as you meet their eyes and receive their gift, the long string of thought and effort symbolized in the ribbon wrapped around the paper.

I remember being a poor gift recipient one birthday especially. Mom had put a heavy box in my lap, then was sitting on the couch watching, anticipating my reaction. I tore at the paper; inside was an amazing die-cast tractor, rubber tires, steering wheel that moved the front wheels, very detailed engine….without thinking I looked up at her and asked where the trailer was…what a doof I was. I remember she cried. I don’t think I learned anything that day, but the memory stuck with me and years later, finding gifts in the donate pile or the trash, I understood. To reject a gift is to risk rejecting the long string of caring played out over time.

My friend Frank and I talked about a paper he’s writing on the subject of caring. It’s helped me to think about caring on this shortest of days, caring for, being cared for, caregiving, caretaking.

“It’s better to give than receive.” I think it means that by receiving the care and love implicit in a gift that is offered, you give a gift to the giver.

I never saw that until just now.

Be warm on this longest of nights. Think of all those people who are thinking of you, anticipating that moment when you receive their offering.

Thinking of you all at this turning point in the seasons.

Be good to each other.