One Idea For a Simpler Holiday


My father, Irving Gompers Isaacs, World War II veteran and retired rag-man, if he lives long enough to make it to Feb 13, 2011, will be 91 years old. His face is pink. His eyes grow more dim and puffy with each passing day. His face is round like the moon, a fact emphasized by his nearly total lack of hair. He has Alzheimer’s disease.

Together we’ve shared a lifetime of struggle. The usual things you’d expect. Some, maybe not so much. We’ve lived through your basic family discord. For him, and those of us who care for him and love him, life has become in many ways, very simple. Some of those things have to do with the kind of basic human functions we usually associate  with the beginning of life. Potty training. OK. You get it. In the interest of everyone’s dignity, I’ll say no more.

He’s happy to hold my mother’s hand. He likes a really good hug. Despite his advanced age and deteriorating mental condition he’s got the grip of a steel worker. And, he can still do  crazy complex math equations like nobody’s business. When I visit he says, he grabs my hand or hugs me hard and says, “I’m not letting go.” And I know what he means.

In his eyes, I see a strange mix of holding on and at the same time, a letting go occurring slowly, involuntarily, inexorably. Against his will we’re sliding away from him and he from us. Sometimes, he’s embarrassed about it. He covers well with those he doesn’t know so well.

With me, he looks at my dog and asks, “What’s his name?”

“Tiger.”

“Oh, yeah. Tiger.”

Count 1 – 2 – 3  …

“He’s a good dog. What’s his name?”

Other time he merely squints at us and says, “Glad to see you.” His face crinkles. He looks for my mom who may not be in the room to explain who these strangers are. She does a very nice Nancy Reagan.

“Oh look, dear,” she says. “Look! It’s Matt here to see you.” His face hangs for a moment uncertain. Neurons fire somewhere.

“Oh yes!” He says, his voice full of confidence real or feigned. He puts on a good show.

Through the slush puddle my father’s mind has become, certain things rise to the top. Basic human connections. Simple expressions of love. And this is what strikes me as I write this column, thinking about what I might have to offer here about making the holidays mindful. Joyful. Meaningful.

I have only this suggestion..  This holiday season, let’s keep it simple.

This year, let’s try to let go of how it was. How we wished it should be but maybe – never quite was. How it should be. How it might be if only this, that or the other thing was different. We can try to let go of what everyone around us says they want. Family squabbles over who cooks what or who gave what to whom, or sent a thank you card or failed to do so. These things have more to do with our confused sense of a permanent self and little else. At the end of the (holi)day, we have bigger fish to fry. (If you’ll pardon the expression.) Other greens to cook. 

I have to say that sometimes, in the interest of trying to have a happy holiday, we get lost in being responsible for how everyone else feels. Or how we think they might feel. Or how we think they might possibly want to feel. (We do this naturally. After all, this kind of thing is our every day habit.) In the end, honestly, what do we get? Holiday comfort and joy? Or suffering?

The fact is, we each own just one thing. Our actions. There are three kinds of actions. What we do, say and think. How often have you tried to make everyone happy and only ended up with a plate full of distress? There are times when no matter what, others may be dead set on grumbling, holiday or no holiday. 

The truth is, the things we do have no direct relation to how others feel. (Because all those others? They own their feelings, thoughts and deeds, just as much as we do!) We often try to pin this kind of thing on each other but it’s just one of those habits, we’re best off relinquishing.

On top of our own personal circumstances, let’s face it. The world could use some genuine, mindful attention right now. This holiday season … instead of getting wrapped up in various passing family dramas. Let’s see if we can focus on the bigger picture. 

When we quiet our minds, so much irrelevance falls away. We can let go of habitual holiday practices that don’t actually benefit anyone. Real happiness and peace comes from seeing clearly what is and being okay with that. We don’t have to struggle so much. Or grumble about the holidays. 

So … to close, I’d like to share something my teacher wrote. Take it in. See what makes sense to you. So, what ever your spiritual tradition, what ever your faith… check it out …

Sifu writes:

Some people say Buddhism is pessimistic. Buddhism is not pessimistic. It is not optimistic. Buddhism is realistic. It asks us to remove the fog that clouds our thinking. When our minds are clear, we can see conditions clearly; and, when you see conditions clearly because you have mastered your mind, the struggle ends. Then, moving from moment to moment, you joyfully accept all conditions.

Problems are not bad or good. Problems are situations requiring a solution. Solutions that work come from clear minds. We are faced with very big problems at this point in our history. Pollution, poverty and war, for example, threaten all of us. These problems are increasing, not decreasing. Soon, scientists say, these problems will be out of our control. But, so far, our solutions have been lacking because our minds are not clear.

Having not mastered our minds, we are unable to see conditions clearly, and we continue to struggle. Now, time is running out. We have to learn how to see conditions clearly, through meditation and practice. We have to learn to master our minds. There is no other way.

~ Master Ji Ru (Shifu)

I send wishes for everyone’s peace and happiness. Let’s take a moment together. How can each of us give the greatest give of all this holiday season? That of seeing clearly, and acting in ways that allow each of us to move through life blamelessly. Let’s do our best to make the world a better place by making each action, thought, and word no matter how small, with a pure heart and the intention to be of benefit.

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Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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