A Special Holiday: Thanksgiving
Tomorrow is a special day.
It’s a day set aside to focus; a day to focus our time and attention on that which should matter most: our families. One of only a handful of days out of 365 that are designed to bring awareness to the multitude of blessings that wrap our lives. A day during which the only items on a to-do list are to eat more than we should, watch football and laugh with family members and friends. Even if they have decided to open before dinner, it’s a day to at least pretend all stores are still closed; a day to decide that the long lines and doorbusters “guaranteed” to be amazing can wait. It’s one day out of many where we aren’t supposed to worry about getting stuck in rush hour traffic or to care that our kid smeared sweet potatoes across the wall. It’s one day out of many to remember simpler times during which two groups of people with nothing in common decided to help one another. A day to acknowledge that, despite all the advances and progress the world has made, the one thing that doesn’t change is the effect kindness and love have on lives.
I don’t have a big family anymore. I used to. But difficult and traumatizing circumstances combined with complex emotions like guilt and shame have a way of driving wedges between people who are supposed to love one another. Eventually, sometimes, interacting with others on an only superficial level becomes too painful and you realize you have to step back and distance yourself. No one can hurt you quite like family. But the opposite applies, too: no one can love you quite like family, either. My mother and sister are strong and steady and true; I have no idea where I would be, or if I would be at all, without them. Sometimes, my sister and I go on trips together. When we do, we laugh a lot. We know what the other is thinking before it is said. Friendships are made of the ingredients that spice our relationship. I’d do anything for her; and she would for me. We’re fortunate in that we are not alone. We’re part of the “Three Musketeers”: the other member is our mother. Mama is the strength, the rock, that holds us all together. She works hard and has sacrificed a lot, helping us pursue happiness. Tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, I will gather with these two women and my two young daughters. We’ll paint pieces for our “neighborhood” Christmas decorations like we do every year. We’ll eat, listen to Christmas music and laugh a lot. They might try to beat me at Scrabble. For a little while, the outside world simply won’t exist. All that will matter is truly being present and appreciating all the things each of us have brought to our lives. A glow will light me from the inside out as we talk and play and laugh. The girls will help cook: tonight, they thought it hilarious when I let them inject the turkey that’s still cooking with butter. I’ll pull a chair over to the stove in the morning so that my youngest can stir a pot while my oldest will mash potatoes. Every so often, we’ll sneak a bite from our work, widen our eyes, playfully pretending sneaking bites isn’t allowed.
Soon, our bellies will be full and a day of familial coziness will start to close. Once again, it will be just my girls and I. Together, we’ll sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” like we have every single night for the last month. We’ll cuddle up on the couch in front of the fireplace and read a story; maybe make a pallet and dump the box of crayons out to color. After the pictures are colored, maybe we’ll wrap them with construction paper and put them under the brightly lit tree: they will be among the most priceless of gifts. When it’s all said and done and the lights are out, I’ll come back to my nightly chair in front of a cold computer screen. Write more; maybe start designing the cover of the new book. Except I won’t be able to because thoughts of a day spent in a sort of “time-out” from the world will still be crowding my brain. The glow that lit me from the inside earlier will return and I’ll start counting all the beautiful blessings that enrich my life. At first glance, the blessings I will count don’t seem extraordinary. A flower isn’t really of monumental importance–except when its brilliant, red petals remind you of how bright and colorful the world is. A stranger’s smile is easily forgotten—except when no one around you understands and you think hope is lost until a stranger uses up a minute of his life to smile just at you. At times, it is easier to enumerate crisis or justifications for the mind-blowing pain–but that’s only because pain’s catalyst seems to side swipe us. We don’t anticipate pain, so we don’t know how to guard our hearts, so it feels like an ambush. Gratefulness, however, is almost always subtle; you have to consciously think and look at the world around you. And the more effort you put into something, the more time you devote to it, the greater influence it has over your life and over your thoughts.
Every day of the month, I’ve been listing something I’m grateful for on Facebook. They are usually little things because I know that a whole bunch of little things make up one beautiful world. Pain can rip into the beauty; torn families and broken hearts can spill ink over the otherwise perfect art. It’s hard to dance when it requires Herculean effort just to stand up. It’s hard to 🙂 when your shoulders are burdened by a sick child, a mortgage you can’t afford or a car without heat. It’s hard to 🙂 when this difficult and unforgiving world crushes you with feelings of failure, shame, loneliness and doubt. All of those things are shadows that act to block the beauty of thankfulness. Sidestepping the shadow requires effort, commitment and perseverance. It requires clinging to the belief that the collection of small, seemingly benign events that are so easy to overlook exist to create fragility and light in the dark. The random act of a stranger whose name you’ll never know matters, sometimes eating half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s is okay, giving yourself permission to stop worrying about perfection and bills and broken homes to instead immerse yourself in one day of light-hearted conversation, throwing a football to a kid across a yard or learning how to cook a turkey–these things are what Thanksgiving is all about. Indeed, they are what hope is about.
I thought I’d share a short list of things I’m thankful for. If I can remind myself of them, collectively, they help balance the self-derision and fill the void of missing loved ones. Remembering what I’m thankful for—not just tomorrow but every day–paves the way to contentment; yea, even happiness itself.
Today, I am thankful for….
My family. My mother, sister and daughters are the four cornerstones of my life. I’ve been enriched and immensely blessed by their wisdom, their talents and their devotion. I would not be the same without them. No matter how rough a day, no matter how painful the weight of the world is—-I know these four people love me. Remembering the people–even if it’s just one–who truly love you is reason enough to smile despite the rain.
Today, I am thankful for….
Color. I saw this incredibly fantastic photograph the other day that was taken in a plane, looking down upon the top of a rainbow. The image stayed with me all day; I couldn’t forget about the brilliance of the colors in the rainbow. See, I remember a time when, no matter how brightly the Sun was shining, the world seemed grey when I walked outside. The color of the brightest flower was dimmed; even when I looked at the brilliance of a sunset I felt as though I had shades on. Eventually, I walked outside and was overcome by how bright the world was. Color, especially pink and red and blue, remind me that the world is anything but monochrome. It’s rich and beautiful. Once, I was in Georgia, living in a cabin, and I sat for hours on the porch swing, listening to crickets. The same world that it sometimes feels is out to get me is the same world that hosts rainbows and butterflies and trees laden with crisp yellow and red apples; vineyards where the juiciest and sweetest grapes grow. Color reminds me that there are many shades in the spectrum: just because I’m looking at a dark color doesn’t mean there isn’t a bright color in the same space.
Today, I am thankful for…
My country. I am tired of hearing about how far America has fallen. I am from a land where soldiers fight for principles like freedom and compassion and dignity; where tyranny is a human rights issue. We don’t have all the answers and sometimes we make really, really wrong decisions—but that’s because our leaders aren’t gods, they are flawed human beings just like me. No matter how destructive a path we may travel for a while, in the end, we stick by each other. Because we’re the land of the brave, and the free. And, having lived in different countries, there is still nowhere else I’d rather be.
Today, I am thankful for…
Butterflies. Every year, my daughters and I get a “butterfly kit.” We’re sent ten very new caterpillars. They live inside a special cup filled with plenty of food. We watch them. Caterpillars, in case you don’t know, start out as ugly creatures who do nothing but eat all day long. For weeks, they just keep eating. They get bigger and fatter and still they eat. They are slow and they aren’t especially bright. Until one day they crawl to the top of the cup, attach themselves and hang upside down. Carefully, we open the cup, remove the paper the caterpillars are hanging from, and attach it to the inside of a large butterfly house. Closing it, we wait and watch. They shake, and we stare. Something magnificent is happening and my daughters and I all know it, even though we don’t understand it completely. We vow to watch them until the chrysalises are formed but it takes too long; eventually, we go to sleep. And when we awake, the caterpillars are in cocoons. Excitement grows. Tenderness begins to form from where once there was only mild interest. And then… soon… we see it. A broken chrysalis and a newly hatched butterfly lying on the bottom of the butterfly house. Awed, we put in pieces of fruit and tissue paper soaked with water and sugar for the butterflies to drink from. We marvel as their wings dry and they start to take flight. And then, a day later, we know we have to set them free. We take them outside, hold them in our palms. Many of them are hesitant: they gingerly walk along our palms for a moment, clinging to safety, before suddenly they take flight. Entranced, we watch them flutter away, beautiful.
Sometimes I think of butterflies when I am going through a particularly rough patch. I liken myself to the caterpillar who is ugly and slow. The weight of the world is pulling me back so my feet drag and my heart slumps. But it will not last because, like the caterpillar whose suspended upside down in her cocoon, I’ll gather the strength to loosen the bonds holding me back and I’ll break free. I don’t fly right away; my wings are still wet. But it only takes a short time before I’m ready to soar. This isn’t just a pretty analogy; it’s truth. And it’s a cycle that repeats itself because that’s what life is; a cycle. As long as I remember that, then it is easier to wait calmly for the wings to dry during the storm.
There are other things I’m thankful for. Important things like writing and teaching; roses and music; clouds and snails; air itself and the sheltering mountains; strangers and friends. I could ruminate on all of these things for days. I spend a lot of time trying to understand and piece back together the two million, nine hundred fifty-eight thousand, seven hundred and twenty-eight broken shards of my history. There are not words to describe how much it perpetually rips my heart out to know that my children do not even know the people’s names who shaped and influenced my early life. I spend a lot of time writing about the pain. I do this for a lot of reasons, even when it wrings me dry like this current novel is doing. But, finally, after nine years, I’m beginning to see that the past is only a reflection of where I have been. It is not a prediction of the future. Furthermore, time as recent as yesterday qualifies as past; each new sunrise equals opportunity. I use the past to consciously determine what legacy I want to leave my children; what kind of mother I want to be. But I don’t use it as a crutch to be afraid of change because I know that, no matter what obstacles change brings, things like butterflies and color and those one or two people who love me still exist. Giving thanks to and for these things is like wrapping myself up in a fur blanket; I can still get cold but I will not freeze.
Tomorrow is a special day. We will make a conscious effort to acknowledge and appreciate those things and people who enrich our lives. Should every day be Thanksgiving.