“To Matthew, from Santa.” “Here!” His little boy face lit up with excitement, he reaches eagerly for the present his dad holds out.“Who is it from?” Chris asks, waiting to release his grip on the gift. “From Santa!” Hearing the answer he was waiting for, Chris hands over the gift and reaches for my hand, we both sit back with smiles, anticipating the reaction to a much-hoped-for gift as we watch him tear into the wrapping paper. The rest of Christmas morning passes slowly, gifts called out one by one, all of us drawn into the anticipation and excitement of gift-giving.

In the early years of our marriage, Chris and I talked about the Christmas traditions we wanted to either begin or carry on in our new family. Chris told stories about his family’s gift giving tradition – recalling how his grandfather, and then in later years, his father, would call out whatever was written on the gift tag, and wait for the receiver to say, “Here.” The rule was, if you didn’t say “here”, or couldn’t answer who the gift was from, (thereby demonstrating an unfortunate lack of attention,) then the gift went back under the tree. Of course, part of the fun of the game was trying to catch someone unaware, mumbling their name softly, or calling it out in the one moment they stepped out of the room. As our kids grew older, straightforward gift tags became “too easy”, and part of the fun in trying to catch someone not paying full attention became increasingly clever gift tags – which the receiver might not be able to accurately repeat. One of my all-time favorites a few years ago was this one, on a gift to me from our kids:

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As I ponder these moments, I realize their significance extends beyond Christmas morning; these full-of-life moments have something to teach me about a way of being. The first had to do with play, which has become an important part of my recovery journey – recovering the playfulness that was lost somewhere in the fear-filled moments of my childhood. The sense of playfulness accompanying the giving of gifts is a key element in eliciting an experience of joy.

I find myself wondering about the areas of my life that could use some joy – what might it look like to begin being playful there?

How could bringing this sense of mischievous anticipation transform interactions that, right now, I hold with disappointment or despair?

The other realization was related to presence – on Christmas morning, everyone learned to stay fully present, otherwise they could miss out on a gift…at least for a time. Last week I was reminded how often I have to fight to be fully present. Matthew was graduating early from Hope College, and had invited us to attend a luncheon honoring all the December graduates. In addition to my dislike for social gatherings where I will have to make small talk with people I don’t know, I was feeling the weight of too many emotionally draining experiences in the past weeks. As I sat at that table, listening to the polite conversation going on around me, working hard to appear interested, but not interested enough that I might actually have to speak; I found myself wanting to escape. Internally, I was headed for my favorite chair at home, ready to curl up with a soft blanket and a warm beverage, shutting out the rest of the world.

And then I turned and looked at our son, animatedly talking with Chris about his favorite existential philosophers, and I thought “Be here now, you don’t want to miss this moment.”

This was, after all, another one of those key moments marking the transition from boyhood and dependence, to manhood and independence. I didn’t want to miss the significance of this moment; I wanted to pay close enough attention, to savor it long enough that it would be imprinted on my heart, able to be recalled when I needed a reminder of goodness. I did not want to miss out on this gift…even for a time.

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As I told this story to my counselor a few days later, relaying my struggle to stay present for my son in the midst of all I was feeling, (a struggle with more than a little judgement attached) he responded, “You mean you were being human?” Oh…yes. Yes, I was. Yes, I am. And yes, I will continue to be. There will continue to be some gifts that I don’t answer “Here!” to quickly enough; and I can still rest, knowing that they don’t disappear forever. If I pay attention long enough, they will make another appearance, perhaps in a moment when I am more fully able to receive the delight intended for me by the gift-giver. And those are absolutely stories worth telling.

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Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.