It is OK to Choose the Heart of Gold Instead.

Tis the season for a slew of blog posts about the importance of slowing down and savoring.

It’s that time of year when writers feel compelled to publish essays on what really matters.

Don’t get me wrong; I love these posts. I’ll link to my current favorites throughout this essay. But it’s easy to read beautiful, elegant sentences and then revert to my usual habits.

So this Advent, I’ve clarified what I don’t want: I don’t want to lose sight of beauty. I don’t want to be a moving target, to look up after New Year’s and wonder, incredulously, Where did the time go?!

Instead, I want to enjoy experiences that come around just once a year, such as setting up the tree with Jonathan or reading Journeying Through Advent, the insightful book by my friend and fellow writer Brooke Adams Law.

friends, heart of gold

Visiting with Brooke, Thanksgiving 2014

But the thing is, being present for these joys won’t happen by default. I’m a perfectionist and a planner, and taking time off makes me nervous. In some ways, it’s easier for me to keep working.

I’m so thankful to have my own business, but the relative uncertainty of self-employment can get to me. I have this (highly unoriginal) fear that if I take pause, the paid work will vanish. And then I will not be able to buy cat food or contact lenses, and I will have failed.

Admittedly, it sounds silly when I write it out. But when I get to that panicked, grasping place, I can’t see straight. Fortunately, there are a few reliable life preservers to which I cling.

First, I ponder this brilliant statement of Martha Beck’s: “The universe answers all your requests and all your prayers for abundance … but it sends all the good stuff to your real home address. And your real home address is peace.”

Next, I like to give myself written permission to do peace-enhancing things: to take a break at a social gathering, say, or to be an imperfect hostess. For example, I recently wrote in my journal: “It is OK for me NOT to clean the bathroom before my grandparents arrive.”

There’s a story behind this, of course. My grandparents recently drove cross-country and stopped to visit us in Alabama. It was a dream come true, except that the timing wasn’t ideal.

Jonathan and I had just returned from a trip, I was recovering from a virus, and the cat had had fleas (which, as longtime readers know, is my least-favorite of all possible annoyances). Whenever I thought about playing hostess, my head literally ached.

Fortunately, though, two things happened. First, I remembered that I have no idea how long my grandparents and I have left to visit with one another. Two of my grandparents have passed away, so I realize, acutely, that the time we have is precious.

Secondly, my grandmother ordered me not to go the extra mile for them: “Don’t you dare clean or cook! Focus on resting and getting better!” I felt guilty – and deeply relieved – to obey. Her permission was exactly what I needed.

So I resisted the urge to vacuum, and instead sat with my grandparents for hours. I was tempted to cook, but instead we reheated chicken and sweet potatoes and served pre-mixed salad. It was not gourmet, but it was nourishing.

I lit candles, too. Votives on a silver platter are my hostessing secret weapons. They help me to feel hopeful and allow me not notice dust bunnies, which for me is basically the same thing.

And there was this one moment that made everything – letting go of my routine, the practice of hospitality – worthwhile.

As I stood on the threshold of our living room, the sight of my husband and my grandparents at the table just went straight to my heart.

It was as though I’d stepped into that luminous scene in the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, wherein Liz Gilbert and her friends surround a luscious turkey as Heart of Gold plays in the background.

The first time I saw the movie, I was a tad indignant, because that scene isn’t actually in the book. (What can I say? I was an English Literature major – I notice these things.)

But soon, I was captivated. And isn’t that a metaphor for life – how often it’s the scenes we never expect to play that turn out to be our favorites?

My desire for narrative accuracy paled in comparison to the way the light glimmered, and how the actors embodied the relaxed, hungry, contented manner of close friends eating together. All this and Neil Young too?

Personally, I hope heaven will be like that scene: a gathering of true friends, with plenty of food and good music and a new day dawning.

And when I walked back into our living room that night, I experienced the abundance that underlies that scene, and I couldn’t help but brush tears from my eyes.

Suddenly I saw my husband and my grandparents, and they were so, so beautiful. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” I thought, because it was obviously true.

heart of gold, siblings

My grandparents recently gave me this photo of me and my brother. Thanks to them, I have an actual ‘heart of gold’. And how priceless is Willie’s smile?!

After that moment of clarity, I didn’t mind doing the dishes, or losing my voice the next day. I’d found what I’d been searching for; I’d been a miner for a heart of gold … and in this season, I hope that you are too.

I hope that you see and feel and taste love, whether it comes in the form of a gourmet turkey or a reheated chicken from Sam’s.

I hope that you can trust that you are cherished and priceless and beloved even when you don’t have your act together.

And I hope that you notice when the world lights up before your eyes.


How will you choose the heart of gold this season? Join the conversation in the comments!


A beautiful book by a beautiful writer!

Oh, and in case I didn’t emphasize this enough: go buy my friend Brooke’s beautiful new digital book, Journeying Through Advent!


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18 thoughts on “It is OK to Choose the Heart of Gold Instead.

  1. Wonderful, Caroline. I love that you gave yourself permission to not clean before your grandparents arrived. Advent is the season of anticipation, which is trapped in the middle of the busiest shopping time of the year. I can feel the frantic energy everywhere I go.

    I think your post gave me permission to NOT decorate my Christmas tree. It’s gorgeous…the lights are twinkling beautifully, but nobody in my family (husband and 2 teenagers) want to decorate. We’ll be out of town December 21-27, so I’m thinking, if everyone likes it as is, why not leave it be? Stop thinking “I should” and just enjoy the present moment.

    • Marcy, thank you – I’m thrilled to hear that the post gave you permission to let go of what wasn’t needed for your family in this season.

      It reminds me of the year my mom told me that she wouldn’t be doing her usual holiday cookie baking – a massive undertaking, with fabulous results. But though the cookies were delicious, I felt so happy to hear that my mom was choosing to care for herself and let something go that I didn’t miss them.

      Have a wonderful trip and holiday – I’m thankful to have connected with you this year. 🙂

      • Thanks, Caroline. I put the star on top of the tree, then the box of beautiful decorations away. It feels good.

        I know me…I’ll question that decision (because I “should” decorate the tree. If at that point in time my fam decides to decorate the tree, then so be it. But, for now….in the PRESENT, it feels like freeing.

  2. Melissa Javier-Barry says:

    Beautiful post–brought a tear to my eye, too. Also, I love the votives on a silver platter idea. I lit a candle last night…an unusual thing for me to do..and it brought a peace to the room I hadn’t experienced in a while.

    • You are so welcome, Melissa! It was a joy to talk with you last week, and I’m glad the post resonated with you. I think years of L’Arche suppers have made me a candle-lighting junkie – as you said, there can be an unexpected peace that comes from simply dimming the lights and striking a match. Wishing you many more such moments in the days ahead! xo

  3. Brooke says:

    Thanks for the Advent devotional shout-out. 🙂
    Something I’m struggling with this holiday season is celebrating the holiday with new traditions–instead of clinging to the traditions my family of origin celebrated. Sometimes, creating new traditions with my husband is HARD. But it’s always good.

    • But of course! Happy to do it. And that’s a good point – it isn’t easy to let go of things we’ve done things in the past, especially when they were really good things, really happy memories. But building new traditions is hard work in a good way. 🙂 xo

  4. I love your story and it reminds me that everything does not have to be “perfect” to be wonderful. As a recovering perfectionist, I am learning this myself but your story drove it home even more. And it’s especially true during the holidays when we all tend to go crazy, feeling like everything has to be perfect and spectacular. What a wonderful time you must have had with your grandparents!

    • Thank you, Sheila – I couldn’t agree more! It’s always a comfort to know that I’m not alone in recovery from perfectionism, and I hope that you and yours have a very happy, beautifully imperfect holiday season.

  5. What a wonderful post, Caroline! I just love your description of that moment of seeing your husband and grandparents and feeling so lucky. Yes, it really IS those unexpectedly perfect moments we end up cherishing (and funny how they usually arrive when we’ve let go of trying to do everything right!). I really appreciate you linking to my post too! Wishing you a beautiful and ease-filled holiday season. 🙂

    • Sure thing, Jill! My pleasure to include the link; I’m glad to hear that you liked the post. And you said it well – those fantastic moments do have a way of arriving once we’ve let go of perfection and just embraced what is.

      I’m thankful to have connected with you and your work this year, and I can’t thank you enough for the solidarity and inspiration you’ve offered at The Artist’s Nest. 🙂

  6. Kathy Fitzgerald says:

    Beautifully said Caroline. This time of year brings out the best and worst in people. Every feeling is heightened and hopefully most of the feelings are happy and grateful ones….Merry Christmas!

    • Merry Christmas to you too, Kathy! And that’s a good point – there’s a lot of heightened emotion and experience in this time of year, so it’s even more important than usual to be kind to ourselves and each other. Wishing you a wonderful holiday!

  7. So beautifully written with so many gems of wisdom in this gorgeous piece! I must say that I love your grandparents. I love how they knew you would be making a fuss for them so they gave you permission to simply BE. Oh that is the greatest gift!!! I try to say that whenever my family and I go to someone’s house. I try to tell them we are coming to SEE THEM and SPEND TIME together and to not do anything even slightly elaborate. I know it takes the pressure off me when people say that to me. I really enjoyed this post, my friend. You are a treasure.

    • Rachel, your words warm my heart – thank you! I’m thrilled and honored to hear that you enjoyed the post.

      And what you say is so true – I, too, find myself reassuring friends and family members that I want to see THEM … no perfection required. Yet when I’m the hostess, it isn’t so easy to give myself that permission. But with practice, I’m learning. 😉

      Wishing you a very happy holiday – I can’t tell you how much your mentorship and encouragement has meant to me this year. xoxo

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