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A Single’s Survival Guide to the Holidays

Are you facing the upcoming holidays with a blend of excitement and dismay? Happy to have a few days off to celebrate, worship, and see friends and family, but also dreading the inevitable stress, awkwardness, and loneliness that can tag along? Not quite sure exactly how to survive relatives asking about your love life, being the only one at the office party without a spouse, or being minus one on New Year’s Eve yet again, without wanting to toss all holiday cheer out the window? I’ve been there. I lived there. And, after a couple decades of adult singleness, I’ve got a few tips that might help you make the next two months more joyous and less anxiety-inducing.

Make a Game Plan

For those of you who live in cities like Los Angeles where no one ever RSVPs, creating a schedule will feel wrong. What if something better comes up? Everyone plans things last minute anyway, so you might miss out! Bear with me. I had a few LA years there where I looked ahead to my time of at Thanksgiving and Christmas as a blank slate, and rather than giving me the freedom to fill it as things came up, it left me anxious and depressed. Things did come up, but somehow they came up all at once, leaving me frantically balancing multiple events, anxiously picking and choosing what I’d do as I tried not to offend anyone. And, since everything happened all at once, there were often large swaths of time where I’d sit at home waiting for something to happen, feeling quite lonely and sorry for myself. Thus, the game plan was born.

I’ve found the best way to do it is create a blend of set-in-stone events, a couple flexible ones, some down time, and some free time to be filled in as things arise. I also try to make sure my plan includes time with family and time with friends. For instance, I have this week off for Thanksgiving Break and, instead of feeling stressed out with the million things I have to do or sad because I’m waiting around for others to make plans, I am looking forward to the week with great enthusiasm. Knowing I’ll be busy next week, I planned to stay home the Saturday before so I could get this blog done, do laundry, and rest up a bit. Then, on Sunday I’ll head to LA to go to my old church for second service, leaving lunch plans up in the air so I can go out with whoever is available after church. I’ve got dinner/drinks plans with a few friends for Sunday night, lunch plans with other friends Monday, and dinner plans with my girls Monday evening before heading back to the desert for the week. I’ve squeezed some appointments in Tuesday since they have to be done when I’m usually at work, Wednesday is left free to help my mum cook and bake for Thanksgiving, and Thursday-Friday will be for family. The weekend after Thanksgiving I’ve left open because I know my mum will want to decorate for Christmas, and I value being able to help her put the tree up. That also gives me to time to blog, do chores, and gear up for going back to work next week.

Whew! It seems like a lot, but it has a lot of space planned into it so I can love others, let others love me, celebrate, give thanks, and rest. I also remember that Christmas is coming up soon, when I’ll have some more time off, so I don’t feel pressured to see everyone or do everything this week. Never try to fit EVERYTHING into your schedule because it’s impossible and will only stress you out. Pick a couple things for each holiday as your set-in-stone plans, and save the rest for another time. Then try to hold these plans loosely, ready to be flexible if they fall through. Cold and flu season overlaps the holidays, weather can get bad (in non-southern Californian parts of the world, I’m told), and things come up. Be prepared to modify your plans if needed.

So, singles, start texting your friends and booking some lunches! Let your family know which days you’ll be there with them, and which days you’ll be gone. And don’t forget to set aside time to actually rest.

Embrace Friends as Family

When I was younger, I used to feel guilty when I wanted to spend some of my few days off with friends instead of the entire time with family. But the longer I lived in one city, the more my friendships became like family and I yearned for quality time with my friends as much as my biological family.

This became more pronounced as I got more involved with my church. Because of this, I started changing my plans to head up to my mum’s a day or two later, or head back to my apartment a couple days earlier so I could make it to church and spend time with that family as well. Now that I live with my mum, I am blocking out time to go back to my old LA neighborhood, including my old church, as part of my holiday plans.

If you don’t really have family, or they’re too far away to visit during the holidays, embrace your friends as family! Friendsgiving can be one of the most beautiful, enjoyable, worshipful meals you can have. Reach out to other singles, or married couples who live too far to travel to family. Be bold, ask what people are doing, get adopted by families in your church, or adopt a few other singles and create your own holiday celebrations with them. I had a friend who hosted Friendsgiving in her apartment every year for those who stayed behind in LA, and another who always had a Christmas Eve party for stragglers. Don’t be alone. And don’t feel like family has to be related by blood.

Start Your Own Traditions

One of the things people do when they get married, and even more when they have kids, is start their own family traditions. This is awesome as it helps them celebrate the things God is doing in their lives by marking certain days and seasons. As single adults, we often get caught up in the traditions of others and rarely make our own. If you’ve been single for awhile now, it might be time to finally embrace the holidays by creating some traditions.

When I lived a couple hours away from my family, and most of my friends were also single and away from theirs, we created a few traditions together. At the end of each semester (I was a teacher then), some of my friends (mostly teachers) and I would go to our favorite fancy Korean BBQ spot to celebrate getting through finals. These times were precious, as we could give thanks that we survived another semester, and celebrate it being over. Another tradition was my friend’s annual Christmas party; we’d all chip in by bringing food and drinks, and mark the holiday a little early before everyone went our separate ways out of town. As most of us would head back into the city on New Year’s Eve or Day, another friend hosted an annual New Year’s Day Brunch open house, where we’d slowly trickle in throughout the late morning/early afternoon for coffee, mimosas, cinnamon buns, and french toast casseroles.

Roomie Christmas was one of my favorite traditions. My fabulous flatmate and I would set aside an evening the week before Christmas, before I left town, to celebrate Christmas together. We always decorated our flat for the holidays, even getting a 6’ tall live Christmas tree a couple times, so sometimes roomie Christmas was just spent at home, eating seasonal snacks, having hot toddies and watching “Die Hard” or introducing her to “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” One year, we went to an Andrew Bird concert in a gorgeous old cathedral, another we went to Disneyland for our roomie Christmas date. That time was always special, for just the two of us, and set apart from the rest of the holiday busyness.

I would also make sure I was back in my hometown a couple days before Christmas so I could go to Christmas Eve service with my mum, brother, and sister-in-law at their church and then partake in our family’s tradition of opening our stockings that night.

Since I just moved back to the town much of my family lives in and instead live a couple hours from most of my friends, I’m working on creating some new traditions outside of my family ones, so I can still celebrate with my friends.

Get Over Not Having a Plus One

I honestly can’t remember ever having a plus one for anything – not a wedding, family Thanksgiving dinner, work Christmas party, or New Year’s Eve celebration. I had a couple boyfriends in my early 20’s, but I guess they weren’t around during the holidays, or weren’t serious enough to bring home to meet the family. So, while every one of my four siblings brought significant others, some of whom eventually turned into spouses, with them to Thanksgiving and Christmas family meals, I never did. While almost everyone else attended the annual work Christmas party accompanied by a spouse or date, I stood in the corner nursing my drink, feeling oh-so-alone. And don’t get me started on the horrors of one New Year’s Eve party after another, standing there alarmed as everyone else around me seemed to have someone to kiss except for myself and the one awkward single guy who had no intention of kissing me.

One of the benefits of being perpetually single for a couple of decades is that everyone gets used to it. Your Bridget Jones awkwardly trying to make small talk with Mr. Darcy in a reindeer jumper moments decrease. Relatives eventually stop asking the horrible questions about your love life. People stop putting “Plus One” on your invitation as it becomes assumed you’ll come alone. The lone single guy at the part stops being threatened that you’ll want to flirt with him because, well, you’re older now and never really learned how to flirt in the first place. When this started happening (or not happening, I suppose) I was offended. How dare my cousin stop asking if I had a boyfriend, did they think I would be single forever? How rude for my friend to not even give me the chance to bring a Plus One to their wedding, did they think I couldn’t find a date? How condescending for the guy to assume I’m not interested in flirting, is it  just because I’m over 35? But to be honest, at this point in my life, all of these answers are pretty true. I think I will most likely be single forever, I haven’t had a date to any of these functions and probably never will, and I am probably not interested in the guy at the party at all. And I’m pretty happy this way.

So, my tip is to embrace being single during the holidays. Instead of yearning for the rom-com movie ending of every Hallmark movie, learn to love your independence. Instead of getting upset that your cousin is bothering you about not being married yet, tell her how happy you are in your current life because you’ve been able to reach out to others more and serve God in particular ways only a single person can. Explain how awesome work, travel, friendships, church, and ministry have been lately. Change the focus from your single status to your life as a child of God who is fulfilling his plan for your life.

At the office holiday party, enjoy getting the opportunity to meet the spouses and significant others of these people with whom you spend so much of your time. These are the humans that mean the most to your coworkers, so embrace getting to know them. I actually became friends with the husbands and wives of the teachers I worked with through holiday parties like this, and looked forward to getting to catch up with them each year. Don’t stand in the corner feeling awkward, instead be confident that you are just as valuable and have as much to offer as they do. Also, remember that pretty much everyone feels awkward at parties like this! If you make it  your goal to help others feel at ease, you’ll focus less on yourself and end up having an even better time as you help others feel more at ease.

As my friends dated and married over the years, they shared a secret with me: New Year’s Eve is actually one of the most overrated holidays and is almost always a let down for everyone, even when you have someone to kiss. So, take this and other holidays less seriously. Lower those romantic expectations of adventure. Yes, I spent last New Year’s Eve with my only date a nervous doggy trying to hide from the fireworks. Unexciting New Year’s have less to do with being single, and more to do with the fact that we’re all getting old! It’s not like everyone is out partying while I’m home alone. Most of my married friends with kids are in bed by the time the actual West Coast midnight rolls around. Realizing this has been freeing, and now I can enjoy my quiet holiday nights.

Worship

Holidays help us mark our days and remember what God has done. I love them. They break up our usual day to day routine, giving us days off for worship and reflection, celebration and observation. I admit that some years, the holiday season has come and gone without this as my main focus; life gets busy and I get distracted. However, many of my favorite holiday seasons throughout my life were infused by times of worship, moments of looking back at what God had done that year, glimpses of his grace, times of thankfulness, and reflection on what the nativity truly means for humanity. This year, I’d like to infuse these upcoming days and weeks with worship.

One of my favorite parts of studying at L’Abri Fellowship in England last winter was being there for some of the holiday season: Halloween, Bonfire Night, an ex-pat Thanksgiving, the beginning of Advent and the weeks leading up to Christmas. Each morning, one of the workers read to us at breakfast, bits and pieces from the Bible, literature, poetry, and even songs, all meant to focus our thoughts upward and outward. The local church I went to, in a centuries old stone chapel, celebrated the first Sunday of advent with special choral music, liturgical readings, and mulled wine warmed over the pot bellied wood stove at the back of the church. At the Manor House, we had our first advent reading in a candle and wreath filled chapel on the grounds. Now that I’m back from sabbatical, back in the busy routine of humdrum daily life, I’m working to find special ways to worship, on top of the ordinary ones.

At Thanksgiving, my sister and I make place cards by writing Bible verses of thanks on index cards and decorating them with stickers. After dinner, we go around, read our verse, and say something we’re thankful for. Singles, this is something you can do with family or friends! And this thankfulness should infuse our lives; instead of thinking about what we don’t have, we can thank God for what we do have. Holidays give us a unique opportunity to set aside time to meditate on specific things, whether it’s what God has done in our lives this year, praising him for giving up so much to become human in order to show his love for us, or looking ahead to the next year and how we can glorify him better.

As a single person, one thing I’ve missed is family worship. I don’t have kids to create a Pinterest-worthy tree filled with hand-traced leaves with thanksgiving messages on them. I don’t sing Christmas carols, read the story of the Christ child, and light the Advent candles like we used to as a family when I was little. So we singles might need to get a little creative with our worship, find ways to incorporate it into our lives, set aside time to actually write a list of our thanks, write letters to friends who have blessed us, or pray through Psalms of thanksgiving. We might need to search out a devotional book to go through for advent, or download a schedule for Advent reading such as the one offered by the Revised Common Lectionary. We might have to be bold and ask our friends, roommates, or families if they’d like to join us for the lighting of Advent candles and prayer. We worship God through how we live our lives, but sometimes we need a bit more than that to help us refocus – sometimes we need the tradition and liturgy. Seek it out. Fit it in.

My mum and I have decided we’re going to observe advent together, our first year experiencing the entire season together in a decade. We haven’t quite figured out what we’re going to do yet, what we’ll read, how often, and when, but we’ll dig out the old Advent wreath and light the candles. If you have any ideas for readings my mum and I and other singles can incorporate into our own Advent rituals, comment below.

There are many ways singles can grow in our enjoyment of the holidays, these tips merely offer a few ideas. If you have more tips singles can use the survive during this holiday season, I’d love to hear them, and I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons!

Join me next week for the Skint Spinster’s Guide to Gift Giving.

Oops . . . My Feminist is Showing!

As a girl, I learned about friendship from Frog and Toad, Anne and Diana, Frodo and Samwise, Han and Chewie. I learned about adventure from Huck Finn, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Peter Pan. I learned about growing up from Jo March, Douglas Spaulding, Ender Wiggin, and the Cosby children. I learned about courage from Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. What an amazing way to grow up! I had so many kick-ass role models to look up to. The fact that the vast majority of these characters were male never really registered with me. I was able to read books and watch movies, identifying with the hero or heroine, enjoying the stories of both men and women, getting something out of male or female targeted fiction. This is the world I grew up in, what I knew and never questioned, an excellent world – one which I loved.

As I got older, I noticed more and more how much of the literature I read and the films I watched were dominated by male heroes. Ensemble casts would add in one or two women, but were still mostly male, one Hermione to both a Harry and a Ron, a Black Widow and a Scarlet Witch to the rest of the Avengers.  As an elementary school librarian, I still have to search to find books with female leads – even when they’re about animals and not humans. Even after the fabulous push for strong heroines in sci-fi books like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” they are still the minority. At school, at least three out of every four books assigned were by male authors.

And yet, as a girl who grew up on this literature, watching these films, reading these stories and poems and books in school, I was still able to find great value in them. I never really had a choice – it was either find something I could identify with, appreciate, or be entirely left out of the story. I was never taught to do this – no one ever sat my sister and I down and said, “now we’re going to read a book written by a man about boys, but you can still appreciate it and get something out of it.” No, we just learned to do that by reading and watching and putting ourselves into the heroes’ shoes. It was expected that this would come naturally to us, and, for the most part, it did.

This, by the way, is how half the world grows up – being exposed over and over again to the male perspective as representative and authoritative, and we mostly accept it, even love and appreciate it. These mostly male-dominated stories and characters are dear to my heart, and helped shape me growing up – I have nothing against them. I am the first in line for the latest “Batman” movie clearly targeting a male audience, and have read and reread the almost entirely male “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

As a geek and a Christian, this ability to put myself into the male narrative became even more necessary. Both of these cultures are dominated by male voices, so I learned to listen to pastors give illustration after illustration of being husbands and fathers, and I learned to somehow apply the lesson to my life. I read comic book after comic book in which many of the female characters were just there to be rescued, depicted scantily clad, or were just absent and I learned to love the story line, the artistry, and the adventure anyway.

And yet, when the 13th Doctor is announced as female, the internet reveals pockets of geeky men who just can’t handle this. When “Wonder Woman” strikes a powerful emotional chord with its female audiences, boys are confused about why. When Christian women bloggers start to bring up topics like this one, articles are written on how they need more male supervision.

I realize the trolls in comment sections aren’t the best way to judge how most people feel or think about controversial topics, but they do represent a growing, vocal cohort of the population. About a female lead for “Doctor Who,” one thing the more logical, thoughtful male commentators say is, “well, I’m not a misogynist and have no problem with women, but I just think this is going to alienate the original fan-base.” The assumption that the original fan-base was all male, and all macho men who can’t handle a female lead, is problematic in and of itself. I personally, woman that I am, have been watching “Doctor Who” since Eccleston resurrected it back in 2005. More importantly, why on earth should a female lead alienate anyone? Male leads haven’t alienated female audiences, why can’t men appreciate the courage, passion, and awesomeness of women in fiction just as much as we appreciate it in male characters?

“Wonder Woman” was a big deal, but if we bring up how powerful and important it is for us to see a strong female superhero as the lead of her own blockbuster movie, we are called “libtards,” “PC snowflakes,” or other words I won’t honor in print. When Christian women ask genuine, important, thoughtful questions about gender roles in the church, even those of us who are actually quite conservative in our beliefs, we are called “rebellious,” “unbiblical,” “upstarts,” and again other words I won’t honor in print by so-called Christian men.

In the library, I’ve had multiple little boys tell me they can’t read particular titles because they’re “girl books.” I have yet to have a single little girl tell me they won’t read a “boy book.” When I was a high school teacher, I never had a female student groan about the assigned text just because it was written by a man or for a mostly male audience, but the minute I assigned a text by a woman or one written for a mostly female audience, the teenage boys would whine and complain as if I was asking them to exert themselves in some horrible way.

As my wonderful brother-in-law pointed out, this isn’t just a problem of sexist men, but rather the result of a society in which men are expected to behave in very specific ways, one which is sadly emphasized too often in the church. “Manly” men are all the rage – some churches even preach this as the theologically necessary view of manhood. Therefore, even if a little boy wants to read “Nancy Drew” books along with his “Hardy Boys,” he might be bullied or seen as effeminate, so that desire is crushed out of him. In this way, I actually had more freedom as a little girl since I was never judged too harshly for reading “boy books” along with my “girl books.” So this issue goes beyond just a few sexist men to the way both fathers and mothers, pastors and teachers, really our whole society, raises its children. 

As I would tell my teenage boys when they groaned as I assigned Charlotte Bronte or Maya Angelou: “your female classmates, half the class, have been reading books by and for men since they started school and they haven’t once complained, the least you can do is read one or two by and for women.” All I’m asking is for those threatened guys to quiet down for a moment about not liking a woman being cast as the lead, or not understanding why a female superhero movie is a big deal, or not wanting pastors to allow female voices and stories be heard in the church, and instead learn to find the value in hearing someone else’s story. Rather than only being able to identify with stories when they feature someone exactly like you, do what the rest of us do and learn to use your imagination to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if you don’t understand why things are a big deal to women, please ask us. Avoid the temptation to mansplain why it shouldn’t matter, and just listen for once.

This disparity in representation between men and women only increases when discussing people of color, and especially women of color. At least as a white woman, I have a few heroes that look like me – but the minute you add any race other than Caucasian into the equation, the chances that you’ll find yourselves depicted as the hero or lead diminish to almost nothing. Though the focus of this article is on sex and not race, I cannot keep from mentioning this because it is a topic which seems to bring out the worst in people. If you think men shouldn’t have to be alienated by trying to appreciate a female lead, then how much more do you think men and women of color are alienated by having to try to identify with often stereotypically white macho males being held up as the quintessential hero?

What is my goal with this rant? I call upon my two favorite communities, Christians and geeks, to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are showing compassion and understanding to those different from us by allowing them to tell us their stories. Are we shying away from hearing someone else’s voice because it does not specifically represent us? Are we refusing to read or watch or listen to something because we might feel uncomfortable or alienated? Are we raising our sons to think anything written by a woman or with a female lead is too girly for them? Are we judging the value of story only based on things we know we already like, already can relate to? Like men and women of color, and women in general, have we ever trained ourselves to be able to listen to voices other than our own and still find value in them, or do we groan, whine, get angry, turn away, and search for a face that looks just like us?

My challenge to all of us this week is to read a blog or a book, watch a movie, or listen to a sermon by someone totally different from ourselves, aimed at a different audience. Take it in. Ponder. Look for something other than confirmation bias from it. Try to find points of connection. Do what every single woman and person of color spends their life doing. Who knows, you might find a new voice you actually like.

*If you are reading this via e-mail and are unable to see the gifs, please click through to the webpage, there are a lot in this one! 🙂