***This blog post pertains to a Christmas “reality”… if you are old enough to be reading this online, well, you’re old enough to read this — unsupervised — by your children***
The day after Thanksgiving starts it. The relentless questioning and badgering and bartering of chores done and childish good behavior all gearing toward the day that she will arrive. She? Who is she? Santa arrives on the indisputable 25th along with the reason for the season, the baby Jesus — both of which are, historically, “he’s”. So who is this SHE?
She is Daisy. Our Elf on the Shelf. Whose miraculous appearance is timed perfectly every year with the arrival of our Christmas Tree. We spend a day putting up a tree and voila — the next morning, there she is, perkily perched on the perfectly lit branches. A grand entrance only if you enjoy an explosion of expectation and expletives-yet-to-be. Yes, expletives. Because I have cursed the invention of this daily task amidst the month long endless list of tasks. Because I had regretted allowing one of my older daughters to introduce this new “tradition” into our already jam packed routine of holiday ritual. Because I didn’t need one more way to fail in the midst of my faltering life. At least I didn’t at the time.
At the time, our household was falling apart and it seemed like introducing something new and trendy was just the thing to carry us through a difficult time. What started out as a delightful distraction for a 6 year-old became an annually recurring nightmare. Because that first year, there were no expectations that Daisy had to live up to. Every day in a brand new pose in a brand new spot meant a joyful morning scavenger hunt that was easy because the older kids picked up the slack when I couldn’t come up with the ideas or simply forgot in the rush of everything else. Unfazed by unmoving eyes, legs that wouldn’t bend and hands, eternally bound together with a tiny stitch of thread, the “olders” quickly learned how to use this as a device to bend the youngest to their will. “Daisy is watching” as a behavior barometer for her quickly became “Daisy is waiting for you to mess up, too”, to me, in my mind.
Every year, Daisy arrived at the beginning of December and departed on Christmas Eve. Approximately 24 days. As our memories of Daisy’s antics grew, so did the capacity for my daughter’s memory of each and every pose. The level of expectation grew, as well, because my daughter’s awareness was also growing. Access to Pinterest and excited conversations among her friends revealed a pressure to outperform the standards that I had to admit we had set for ourselves. By the end 2016, the Elf on the Shelf routine meant nearly 100 poses and positions were already in the books and could not be repeated. As with many of my projects, desperation and deadlines boost creativity, but at what cost to my sanity in 2017?
Daisy’s first Christmas with us was our family’s last as a “unit”. By the next Christmas, entrenched in the divorce process, I had little money and zero joy to invest in the holiday. There were many mornings that my eyes would fly open in the pre-dawn dark
remembering that I hadn’t moved Daisy and I would quietly slip out the bed that the youngest shared with me to quickly find a new, albeit sometimes lame, spot. There was one morning that we awoke together and I launched myself out of the room in time to slip the elf in the back of my pajama pants. She walked in and while she was looking high I went low and let it fall, and it landed, face down on the floor, losing a boot in the process. I blamed the pose on the dog. My daughter thought it was just another yoga pose and thoughtfully recreated it for a picture and “posterity’s” sake.
This overall pattern for me was a common one — exhausting myself due to expectation — and it was always magnified during the holidays. Creating holiday magic while creating the illusion that all was merry and bright. Melting chocolate for treats to sweeten the now annual family meltdown. My worry that I was not enough became too much. Even before the divorce I had lost my enjoyment of decorating the house and baking and shopping and wrapping but that was simply a seasonal extension of my loss of joy about nearly everything. I was hurting in places I had never before experienced pain. I was failing in ways I had always expected to succeed. I was hanging on by the thread that had bound both Daisy’s and my hands. I was hanging on only because of my own expectation that I had to.
That first year, I, like Daisy, was wide-eyed-deer-in-the-headlights frightened and frozen, looking at what was happening to my family. I moved stiffly and awkwardly, bound by how I had failed every expectation I had had of how my life would go. I had fallen, face down, and I could not allow my children to follow suit, even if it did look funny. Ironically, those mornings that I bolted out of bed to salvage my little one’s belief meant that was a day I would’t stay in bed. Enforced creativity began forcing out fear. Daisy began to reflect healing and humor and hope and I began, day by day, to change my pose to meet other’s expectations into a stance of strength from my own experience.
These changes are purposeful and pointed and while a long time coming, may be a surprise to people who have known me, some my entire life. In a recent conversation with a friend, I expressed my concern about no longer fitting other’s expectations of me, knowing that some I cared about would be disappointed. He said that it was less about their expectations of me than about their past experiences with me. It was simply a matter of taking the time, going forward, to allow them to accumulate the experiences that would form new expectations. In other words, I, in my hard fought independence was coming in like a well intentioned elf on an ornamental wrecking ball.
Experience and expectation are as entwined as the elf and the shelf. Experience pre-seeds expectations because it precedes them. New experiences are surprises and learning opportunities and whether they are good or bad will determine our mindset for any circumstance that is similar in any way. It’s why a child bitten by a dog will grow into an adult who steers clear of them. It’s why a teenager trying out for a high school baseball team will feel more confident having played Little League. It’s why veterans deployed oversees will hear gunfire during 4th of July celebrations. And it’s why anyone who has grown through a traumatic experience will feel apprehensive about returning to the environment that created those expectations. Being new in a new place is easy. Holding on to new in an old place takes courage and stamina and strength.
This strength has grown not from seasonal magic but from a constant and transformative inner truth — one that has grown and evolved with my daughter, as well as within me. No more poses. No more playing along. Now 10 years old, her oldest sister informed me that she was aware that I was the elf behind holiday happenings because she had recognized that Daisy’s handwriting looked an awful lot like mine. This past Sunday, as we discussed our plans for getting a Christmas tree and how we might decorate this new space, I told her that I knew she knew. And that I hoped she had seen how I had tried hard to make her happy, not that I had tried to fool her. We laughed remembering some of “Daisy’s” antics and she felt bad that she had made me continue with the game on the days she was staying at her dad’s — requiring me to send her pictures of where the elf had turned up every day. And then she did the most miraculous, unexpected thing… she asked if, instead of relegating Daisy to a shelf as christmas decor, she took over and did it for me. She wanted to give back the joy of waking every morning to a new experience. A new joy. A new play on an old ploy for goodness as a guide for behavior.
I did not know how to behave in that moment. I have been told that not all expectations end in disappointment but that has been hard to believe. Until now. This youngest child of mine was, herself, a surprise. She arrived just shy of my 45th birthday, 11 years after I thought I was “done” and in defiance of every expectation of how I thought this part of my life would go. Because of her, every day was brand new and the mornings were a joyful discovery of how she was changing and the older kids picked up the slack when I didn’t have enough energy or enough hands to meet the expectations of this now bigger family. Just like Daisy, we had no expectations of her — so we just loved her, as she was.
And as she is, now, not only does she not carry my unrealistic fear of expectation, she has brought forth an unreasonable joy from within these experiences. Through the chaos and changes and chances that we have had to take she found consistency in that unchanging expression on that elfish face. A consistency that showed up like clockwork grounded her in a truth that gives flight not to fantasy, but to a fantastic transformative comprehension of not only what to expect from love, but how to experience it. To just let it show up. Let it be a little messy. Let it show off, a little. Let it fall and let it be found where it lands. Be thrilled when you find it and continue to seek it every day, without fail. And then just be it. When we expect love to show up for us in a certain way or a certain place, we fail it, not the other way around. I can’t say whether I will ever stop expecting the other shoe to drop. But maybe, just maybe, it will be Daisy’s missing boot.