Being present is easier said than done, of course. Presence requires letting go of old habits, complaints, and hang-ups. In my case, it also required recognizing my competitiveness and impatience; I had to step back to notice the ways I am hard on people, judging them when I should just support them, insisting things be done on my punishing schedule. Today I make more time to sit and listen when a friend is troubled by something. I climb fewer hills, refraining from chasing every work opportunity that presents itself, whether that means skipping a conference or deciding I;d rather not travel for two months straight to promote a book.

At this time of year, I'm particularly aware of the importance of presence. As the wreaths come out and the carols start piping over the loudspeakers at the mall, as the Hanukkah lights are ritually lit in the plaza near my home and the air turns crisp with the smell of pine, I think about the fact—easy to acknowledge, hard to live by—that holidays are the time we get to be together. I strive to turn my full attention to family and dear friends, declining party invitations so I can devote myself to the people closest to me. I may not always succeed, but I attempt to invest fully in each moment I spend with them. (I know, even when it comes to letting go, I'm desperate to do a good job! But I'm learning.)

My mother was a great gift giver, at once thoughtful and sly (one year she put little bottles of 5-hour Energy in my stocking). But her greatest gift remains the way she approached life; she didn't let anything frazzle her to the point where she didn't have time to listen and laugh with us. Sometimes I picture her face and feel the sting of loss, but then sorrow blossoms into the lightness of knowing how much she gave me. A joy spreads like sunlight returning, and it's as if I can hear her saying, "Lighten up, Meg." Finally, I know what she meant.

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