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My childhood Christmas lists were a work of art. Crafted from hours with my nose in the Sears catalog, the key at the top was essential. Need Very Badly = NVB. Need = N. Want = W. Want Very Much = WVM. Each item (often topping 100) was coded, with its attendant page number, order number, and price. I made sure there was a wide spread of pricing, the top end reflecting optimism that my preacher father’s church board’s Christmas bonus–usually our only money for “doing” Christmas–would be larger than expected (I still don’t buy presents until the week before). I asked for a telescope four years in a row, starting in first grade, and will never forget the pure joy of seeing it set up in the bay window of our Ohio home, snow falling outside, my fourth grade scientist’s wonder soaring.

Another memorable gift was in my senior year in high school. When fall clothing hit stores, my mom and I were at Casual Corner, our favorite store. The perfect red wool coat practically embraced my 17 year-old swooning self, and I immediately asked for it for Christmas. My mother, who was browsing for herself, distractedly said, “Maybe honey, we’ll see.” Money was tight that year, and I knew what maybe meant. I still had hope, though, and the next week when I was at the mall, I raced straight to my coat…to find it gone. Oh well.

Christmas morning, my mom distributed the presents like we always did, one to each person, opening together, showing what we got. My parents always equalized the number of gifts to each child–I find myself doing the same–but this time, everyone else had four while I had two. I am the eldest; my brothers were then 14 and 16. I sat there in my pajamas, wanting to cry but smiling, holding my gloves and scarf, trying to be grown up about the clear lack of money to buy me anything else, berating myself for being so selfish.

When everyone was done, relaxing, cleaning up the wrapping paper, my dad said, “Hey, what is that? That right there,” he said, pointing to the Christmas tree. I was sitting closest to it, and he said, “Jene’ honey, that looks like an envelope. Grab it for me, will you?” I did, and it had my name on it! I looked at my parents, smiling, and opened it. It was a Christmas card, and inside, in my mother’s perfect handwriting was something like “Merry Christmas, from Mom and Dad. We love you. Go look in the hall closet.” I did, and there was my RED COAT! I couldn’t believe it and burst into tears, thanking them.

I wore that coat for ten years. Like Harry Potter’s mother-love-infused skin, my coat was soaked in the magic of my parents’ love, in protection, kindness, and caring. If someone asks me what I want for an occasion–birthdays, Christmas, holidays–I tend to focus on needs, things that will enable me to be/do better. Only when pushed will I admit to coveting baubles and pretty things, clothes or jewelry. They’re there, flitting in my heart, believe me; but lists have always seemed more a time for needs. But beyond the list and even the pretties, what I have always most coveted is Surprise. Yes, I asked for the telescope and the coat. But the way they were given were utter and complete surprises. That’s why they’re memorable. And why Surprise?

To me, surprise issues from caring. It’s caring in action, in Noticing, Taking Time, Keeping it Secret, Crafting a Plan, and Execution. It’s evidence that I am cared for and cared about…loved. And that is the One Thing we all want for Christmas and for every day…to be loved.

In the midst of years of depression and panic, one of the first things to flee is the feeling of being loved. Logic helps a little, but not with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness that I will die soon and alone.

And yet, this last year of grieving my mother’s and sister-in-law’s deaths has given me a gift beyond anything I could ask for: certainty of love. Even when darkness has and still drags me down and holds me under, I know I am loved. And in a concrete, tangible way, though not always in literal presence. Gifts, tangible evidence of love and care, have been placed in my hands to help and support life and work and, sometimes, sheer survival. You, my people, have been amazing. My mom said words to me before she died that were gifts of love for my entire life. I know my dad loves me. My children love me. My family loves me. My friends love me.

Beginning in the last months of my mom’s life, the Evidence of Love has pounded at my insecurities, sloughing them away like a sculptor revealing the beauty within stone. I can’t deny it any more. It has taken several Ah ha! moments, but the certainty of being loved has finally brought that most essential love, of myself. And with that, I finally–finally!–have the ability and capacity to return the oceans of love that have been needed–thank you, oh thank you–for literal survival this year. Once the core is solid, then can love for others blossom for true.

Was my love before this not real? No, it was real; but compared to now, it seems fractured and anemic. Last night, after I sang with some lovely ladies to lead a Christmas sing-along at a coffee shop, a friend hugged me goodbye and said, “You know, you are so loved, Jene’.” I teared up and thanked and hugged her. Later, I realized what was so different about our exchange, what disconcerted me a little in the moment. When she said those words, I did not recoil in the feeling of being unworthy. I simply sat in gratitude and returned the love to her in my words and affection. No more energy wasted. No more hoops of self-flagellation. No worries over power lost or gained. And because I could rest in her love for me, I could love back freely and completely, with no fear.

So what do I want for Christmas? I can’t have more time with my mom, or hindsight-aided second chances. I could give you a list, complete with a key at the top, of things that would make my life easier, work more efficient, creation more fun. In getting to these words here, a list was involved, inspired by a fellow writer’s list, and after posting it, it felt gauche and awkward, too much a straight line (there’s a reason my symbol is a spiral).

The One Thing I really want, I already have. Gratitude for it often squeezes me in its intensity, its shuddering shattering reality shining all over every moment, even the dark ones. And its depth and richness flows out to you and my family and children and strangers. I need nothing else, and I hope, wish, and actively participate in the process by which you receive this same gift, that of Love.

p.s. But if you must get me something for Christmas, make it a Surprise, and make sure it includes a hug. 😉

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