Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Remembering the Season of Gratitude

Royalty-free Stock Photo: Maple leaf cookies on pumpkin pie
photo credit
I have been known to put up Christmas decorations on Halloween. This was before I had my own little Trick-or-Treaters, of course. I used to answer the door, toss a handful of candy into the outstretched pillow cases, and then close the door and return to Nat King Cole and my Christmas ornaments. My reasoning was that the season is so busy anyway, and with Thanksgiving plopped at the end of November, Christmas is practically squished into a small corner with no breathing room. So I got started early. I would dust off my tree and set her up in my family room as to ensure a good two months of leisurely evenings spent sitting beneath the glow of Christmas lights.


I think back on those Christmasy Halloweens when I was living in Arizona and remember how some November days were still blazing hot and the whole scene appeared a little wrong, like wearing a parka in July. But it wasn't the ridiculousness of observing a Christmasy Halloween in a desert climate that encouraged me to cease and desist. Rather it was that my girls got bigger and by default so did our family's need to observe Halloween in more traditional ways...and oh how grateful I am that that happened. Suddenly I was forced to take each season in stride and say to myself, how can I make this particular holiday special, instead of allowing Christmas to absorb everything else. 


In particular it was Thanksgiving that has benefited the most from this change. With nothing to recommend itself other than one big meal, Thanksgiving as an individual season and significant holiday is easily waylaid isn't it? That's something that has come to bother me more and more over the past few years. Of course the symbols of the season are there beckoning- pumpkin pie, turkey, family and friends. But what rests at the heart of the extravagant feast? 


I recently stumbled upon this quotation by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354- 430):


People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea,
at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular
motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering... Now, let us
acknowledge the wonder of our physical incarnation— that we are here, in these
particular bodies, at this particular time, in these particular circumstances.
May we never take for granted the gift of our individuality.



Let me add one more quotation to the bulletin board. This one came out of the excellent novel Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:  


The main character writes, "[My father said that] whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first up of coffee. Only decades later would I realize he had been giving me a piece of advice" (127).


As November stretches before us we might all nod to one another and express gratitude for our freedom, faith, and food. Maybe you'll spend some time browsing through your photo album of the past few years and think to yourself that some of the sights were beautiful and you were privileged to be standing on that particular vista on that particular day. Or maybe you're one of the dispirited who smiles by day and stares at your little pile of disappointments by night. The point is that it is all very personal. Our attempts at gratitude, either real or mechanical, are so very personal. And what that Hippo guy and the Towles guy both made me realize this week is that gratitude in life is born from the acknowledgement of personal experience. What surrounds us both in body and time are what we have to hold on to. Run your hands along your frame, however imperfectly formed, and appreciate the strength and endurance of your limbs. Put your arms around your child even as she squirms, and taste the food you put into your mouth today. Are you paying attention? Because what you experience is what you have to be grateful for. 


Today I spent a precious thirty-eight minutes sitting alone in Starbucks while my toddler was at her dance class. I looked around at all the regulars with their laptops and books strewn all over the wooden tables. As if they had no where else to be for a good eight hours. But I didn't feel a wink of jealousy. I had thirty-eight minutes and when you're paying attention you can appreciate a lot in a short amount of time. A leather easy chair, a good book, and pumpkin spice everything. To me it looked, felt, and tasted like a brief sort of happiness.


There have been many "daunting and dispiriting events" in my life this year, but I hope to begin the season of Thanksgiving thinking about and moving closer toward feeling real gratitude. And experiencing the small pleasures and individual moments that will make it feel real to me. Thirty-eight minutes in Starbucks. Three weeks until Thanksgiving. Three hundred sixty five days in a year. Take some of it with you. 

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