How to Recycle a Christmas Gift
A step-by-step guide to reclaiming personal peace this holiday season
“How many more caps do you need?” my dad asks me, almost as invested in my effort to get the homemade Christmas decoration finished as I am.
“By the looks of it, we need to go through at least three more cases of water by Christmas Eve,” I answer. My tone is flat with skepticism.
Always the fix-it guy, he offers a solution, “Well, buy the water and we can open up the bottles and dump them into jugs.”
“Uh huh,” I reply, somewhat unenthusiastically. Strange as it seems, doing this feels like cheating to me though I have no rational reason for it. I wonder, who do I think I’ll be answering to regarding the source of my plastic bottle caps, the recycling police?
not the homecoming I’d hoped for
Since coming to live with my 81-year-old parents as their primary caregiver, I’ve been dreading the holidays almost as much as I dread waking up in my sister’s old bedroom every morning. A ‘room’ which had been converted to an ‘office’ years ago, but not before robbing the smallest bedroom in the house of half its square area and a precious window to add room for a walk-in closet to my mom’s bedroom.
Now, my mom (who doesn’t know where she is half the time), has a window in her clothes closet and I live in a shoebox. In this situation, sacrifices must be made, I realize this and I came prepared to make them. I just didn’t know to what extent I’d be willing to go.
so begins the neuroses of creativity
Months ago, I wrote in this poetry piece titled ‘The Covenant of Understanding’. In part II, I admit to beginning a strange habit of collecting the plastic caps from the beverages we consumed, which is mostly water and Coke. I’m fairly certain this eccentricity came in response to the emotional stress of the situation in what I assume was a mildly obsessive-compulsive act of survival. By diverting my attention to something tangible I could count, control, and then transform into something not connected to suffering, I was already laying plans to save myself. I jealously hoarded the caps as if they represented chips of my own dwindling sanity.
I didn’t know any of those things in the midst of my behavior, I was simply trying cope. In my habit of reflection and introspection I’ve come up with some plausible explanations for my actions, though more learned psychologist might debate me.
For a while, mostly red and green plastic caps filled the bag I’d hung near the recycling container in the spare bathroom. Occasionally I’d drop in a white one or a blue one.
Everyday, two or three Cokes for my mom, and four or five waters between me and my dad.The caps piled up then began to reshape themselves in various iconic images of Christmas in my imagination.
Originally I wanted to do a Santa Claus mosaic, but unless he was going to be from Mars, I’d have to settle for a modest Christmas tree.
I discovered creating is not unlike praying
I bought a half sheet of plywood, some red and white spray paint, and prepared to paint the board in vertical strips for the background. I did this at night snatching bits of time after the dinner been cleaned up, dishwasher loaded and my parents were safely ensconced on the couch watching reruns of Shark Tank which seems to be the only program which interests my mom these days. My dad indulges the routine even though I think he’d rather be chased by an actual shark than watch another re-run of this particular show.
starting anything is easy, but it’s the follow through that counts
Dashing to the garage I set the plywood up on saw horses then measured and taped the board off in strips. Back inside for a quick peek then back to the garage to make some quick passes with the spray paint then back inside to make sure everything was still “stable.” I felt frantic but determined.
Once the background was done, I laid out the outline of the tree and glued those caps into place. I hemmed and hawed a little at this point, gluing the caps permanently into place was a commitment somewhat like the one I’d made when I came to help my parents. Sometimes we think we’re going to meet Santa Claus, but sometimes what we get coming down the chimney is something entirely different. That’s life.
In eyeballing the spaces left on the board I figured on needing about fifty more green caps to finish. In the meantime, I flipped the board over to begin securing the lights around the outline of the tree. I started out putting them in one at a time, but then discovered I could set two lights if I used both hands to stabilize them and this would cut my time in half for this part of the project. But, there was a “catch.”
While both hands were busy securing the lights, I was forced to stop everything except breathing and wait for the glue to set. Sitting on a stool hunched over the board I’d hold as still as possible, concentrate on my breathe and listen to the sounds of life going on around me. A pair of animated crows cawed and commiserated about the coming snow. The florescent lights hummed like Chernobyl over my head. Once, a whole flock of grackles, a midwestern blackbird, must have landed in the trees surrounding the garage because there was a cacophony of screachy tweets and whistles which lasted about 30 seconds then ended abruptly as if someone had flipped off a sound-effects loop for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds.
My most profound revelation while in the silent holding position was this: When the wind blew from a certain direction the wind chime in the backyard played the first three notes of “Smoke On The Water.” The world went on with decisive indifference while I’d count backwards from thirty before carefully releasing my hold on the two lights peeking through the holy outline.
Eventually it occurred to me I could be making better use of my ‘hold time.’ I knew I desperately needed to replenish a reservoir of peace within my heart and mind so I decided rather spontaneously to pray with each pair of lights I installed. What did I have to lose?
It took me about 30 seconds, one Lord’s Prayer (hold the Hail Marys) or three Serenity Prayers for the glue to set. With each pair of lights I let go of, I began to feel lighter, too.
As I pointed my glue gun at the last two and secured the final lights of the tree’s outline, I recognized a growing appreciation for the gift of creativity I’d been given and how many times this precious gift has saved me during the course of my life. Having been able to call upon the energy of creating was like having a fifth appendage to stabilize me when the mountainous challenges of life turned treacherous. Creating is a lot like praying . . . and climbing.
Creating is a lot like praying . . . and climbing.
Recycling is all about the transformation
One cap at a time, one day at time I try to hang on, do better, be kind, act with love and compassion while I’m in the position to make a difference in the lives of two people I love very much. What better way to transform suffering than to recycle, recreate, and redirect our struggles toward the Light of the Spirit bound in every person and situation. It’s a positivity I must cultivate and reaffirm when the going gets tough because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I came into this world wounded, but creativity is healing me little by little.
One spiritual constant I hold in the highest esteem is our capacity to create with intention, which I believe is one of our most precious gifts next to life itself.
getting on Secret Santa’s gift list
I think maybe God is trying to give me yet another gift this Christmas, but the problem is it’s wrapped in hardship. It will be a gift I will have to work diligently to unwrap and claim as my own. As we prepare to celebrate the renewal of the Christ in all things with the birth of Jesus Christ, I’m struggling with what may be one of life’s key lessons, and its trailing behind it a ticker tape of unanswered questions.
What is the true nature of love? What immutable qualities does it embody?If your love for another is true, does it continue without sway when they can no longer reciprocate in kind?
In caring for my mother, little things like a look here or a comment there had caused me to doubt whether she actually knew me as her daughter any longer. A few days ago she removed all doubt by asking me why I kept calling her ‘Mom.’ The question took me down harder than I expected. Would I be able to remain steadfast in caring for my mother with compassion and empathy? Or, would I resort to regarding her as the stranger she was becoming at the merciless hands of Alzheimer’s?
Something in me shifted as I felt grief strip away yet another layer of hope. I got testy for a day or two, then clawed my way back to acceptance. Finally, I’ve decided I must let go of my need for her conscious recognition of me as her daughter and hold the memory of the love we shared as mother and daughter for both of us.
I always tell her she is a good mama, and her answer’s always the same, “I am?” I wish I could take the question mark out her reply and replace it with a period.
I had hoped to have a final picture of my project proudly displayed in the front yard of my childhood home, but alas, there is still water to drink, caps to collect and deadlines to meet; however, I think I am closer than ever to lighting up our recycled Christmas tree one cap, one day at a time. Merry Christmas!*
Author’s update: Merry Christmas! Also, a warm and sincere ‘thank you’ to Clay Rivers for the invitation to contribute to this wonderfully diverse collection of stories and to stand in the company of these writers! What a gift!