November Thanks #26 | 3 Gifts Preparing

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

I love the surge of anticipation and energy that runs through me when I’m preparing for a special event or holiday gathering. It lifts my spirits and reminds me that life is good. Some days I need reminding.

Today is my husband’s birthday, a milestone birthday. He wants to celebrate it quietly without any reminders of the exact milestone. Unfortunately for him, all his family and friends know the milestone and they’re not going to be quiet about it. Coming the day before Thanksgiving, and all the preparations that come with the holiday, his birthday could easily get swept to the side but I won’t let that happen. A birthday needs celebrating, even quietly. Yesterday I went to the store and bought a small container of gelato, a special flavor that my husband loves. The store was having a sale if you buy two, so I bought a second one in the flavor I love. I hid the two small containers in the freezer, planning to surprise my husband with them for dessert after his birthday dinner tonight.

Last night as I prepared for bed, I took my usual hot, soaking bath. It’s a time of meditation for me, a practice in mindfulness. It frees my mind of stress and allows me to get a good night’s sleep. But sometimes my mind gets free of all the clutter and I remember something very important or I get a really great idea for a story that I need to write down. And that happened last night, so after my bath I came downstairs to jot down some notes and what did I discover? My husband eating a small container of gelato! And it was the flavor I had bought for myself! Just like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, my husband grinned and said, “Happy birthday to me!” Indeed.

Tucked alongside birthday plans and Thanksgiving preparations are the beginnings of decorating for Christmas. The first decoration I put up is a collection of porcelain houses. I have quite a large assortment and it’s really quite a bit of work. Some years I didn’t put them up and my daughters, one especially, complained. It is such a part of their Christmas tradition to have those houses lit up. This year, the complaining daughter offered to come help me put up the houses. What fun! And today is the moment when we both could do it, so TA DA! up go the houses. Well, not yet. It is still very early in the morning. The house is quiet, the sky is just starting to wake with light. Some neighbors have left for work; others are tucked quietly in their houses. And here I am, enjoying the tranquility that can only be found in the quiet of the morning, before all chaos breaks loose.

Oh, but how I love the chaos and the commotion! Birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas all rolled into one today! Imagine the surge of energy and excitement running through us all. Anticipation!

November Thanks #25 | 3 Gifts Ugly-Beautiful

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

box of rocks

There was a time when I found myself in a therapist’s office, searching for answers about life. Stuck and unable to move forward or back, I had spun in circles for months before connecting with this particular therapist. She made me think so hard at times my brain hurt. She reminded me how to feel. But most importantly, she helped me find my true self. The time came for me to “graduate” and move on. And at my last appointment with her, I held out my hand and showed her half of an ugly rock. The round, rough edge was facing up and the cut half was flat against my palm. And I held it out and told her, “This is how I think I looked and felt when I first walked in your door. And with your guidance and support, you helped me believe in myself again. I am no longer ugly.” And I turned up the flat side of the rock to allow the crystals to shine. She was so taken aback by my presentation that she had tears in her eyes. The geode was my present to her, so that she would always have a reminder of the work she does to turn something ugly into something beautiful. Whenever I see a geode, I am reminded of that moment and all the challenging work I did to put my life back on track. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be reminded of how far we’ve come.

amethyst_geode

In a few days we will dust off all the boxes of Christmas decorations and get our tree set up. Like most moms, I have a box filled with some special ornaments made by my daughters when they were very young. There’s a picture frame made from Popsicle sticks and a school photo of the artist. I think she was in third or fourth grade. There’s another picture frame made of cardboard shaped like a wreath with elbow noodles glued to it, spray painted in gold. There are paper cutouts colored in crayon with a string attached to hang them on a tree. For years my daughters didn’t even want to take these items out of the box; they were embarrassed by their primitive artwork. But they have finally come to appreciate the decorations for what they are…a gift from a child so special that a mother saved it for a lifetime.

I know I am supposed to name three gifts, but my brain has ceased to function. I have a lot on my mind lately and I haven’t been able to sleep. I keep waking up at four in the morning and cannot go back to sleep. At night, I’ve tried my best to stay awake until ten o’clock thinking I’ll sleep until six in the morning for sure. Not to be. No matter the time I go to sleep, I’m waking up at four. And my eyelids are like curtain shades tonight. I cannot keep my eyes open even as I sit here typing. Going to sleep now.

November Thanks #24 | 3 Gifts Humble

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

Humility is a challenging concept to understand. I know that being awestruck is part of humility—to be humbled by nature. So I was thinking about times in my life when I was so completely surprised and blown away by something that I might have been humbled by it. The birth of each of my children did that for me. I was awestruck by the miracle of birth. I once won a prestigious award and was shocked that I was chosen. But those two events didn’t make me humbled; instead they lifted my up, they empowered me. I was filled with pride in those moments, and pride is actually an antonym of humility. So just what exactly does it mean to be humbled by something?

Some definitions teach that true humility occurs when you are broken, crushed, humiliated. Think of defining moments in your life, but at the lowest moments of your life. If you are humbled, then you are lower in dignity or importance. Religious texts tell us that we as sinners shall kneel before Christ, that we will be humbled.

To be humbled doesn’t mean one is weak or less than another. It means we are without pride or arrogance. The Bible shows us humility in a strong person who loves others, not someone who is weak or timid. A humble person can diffuse an argument without expressing anger. A humble person can react to unfairness without being vengeful. When a humble person is criticized, he learns from the moment instead of becoming defensive.

To be humble means you don’t have unrealistic expectations. Now that’s a concept I can wrap my mind around. In some areas of my life, I am very much a realist and I don’t have too high expectations. In other areas of my life, my dreams are so large that I cannot come close to being a realist.

I need to mull over this concept of humility before I am willing to commit to three gifts. But one thing is for certain, I have some work to do on this virtue.

November Thanks #22 | A Gift Grateful

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

There is one gift that I am grateful for every single day and to many it seems somewhat silly. It even causes some to roll their eyes, as if I am being melodramatic. But if you know my history, it makes perfect sense.

This past summer I turned 53 years old. If I live to my next birthday—and I have no knowledge of any reason why that should not happen—I will have outlived both of my parents. Their deaths came when I was a teenager and the loss of them caused repercussions for my entire life. The older I get, the more I understand the depth of the impact that loss had on who I became, on the path I followed, and on my morals and values and beliefs. And the older I get, the more I treasure each and every day.

I am grateful to be alive.

Simple. Silly? Perhaps. But to one who has first-hand experience with the adage “life is short”, this is a profound statement.

Consider Brittany Maynard, the woman who recently fought for death in dignity. Consider Tracy Morgan, the comedian who was severely injured in June of this year when hit by a truck and who now faces a lifetime of the aftereffects of severe brain injury. Consider the friend or family member in your own circle who was diagnosed in the last year with cancer or lupus or ALS or some other debilitating and likely fatal disease. Consider Gabby Giffords. Consider the children of Sandyhook, even the ones who survived. I could go on and on.

Life is short. Life turns on a dime. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

November Thanks #21 | 3 Gifts Family

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

I didn’t appreciate my mom and dad because I was a child and I didn’t want to follow the rules and didn’t want to get up early on Saturdays to do chores and didn’t want to clean my room. I was so young and so naive. It’s true you know. You never really appreciate something until it is gone. Long ago I lost count of the number of times in my life when I’ve wished to have them here with me to ask a question, to seek their guidance, to get their affirmation. I’ve tried to teach my children to honor their parents, to be grateful their parents are alive, to stay in love with their parents. It’s an easier lesson for some to learn than others.

“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Creating a family is such an exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, rewarding experience. My four daughters and two stepdaughters have taught me so much, some of it unintentionally. And I have gained skills as a result of being a parent that other adults who have never parented don’t have. I am who I am because of my children. And I will be a mother until the day I die.

Becoming a grandparent is twofold. You get to see the rewards of all the hard work you did as a parent as you watch your own child parent. It’s even better when you hear your own words out of your child’s mouth as she parents her own child. But you also get the undefinable joy of interacting with a child without having the burden of parenting. It is incredibly liberating and I find I am allowed to be me simply because I am not the mom.

November Thanks #20 | 3 Gifts of Traditions

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

If I were to ask ten people what traditions they have in their families, I bet nine of the ten would mention something about a holiday. Hidden Easter baskets or egg hunts. Memorial Day or Fourth of July parades. State Fair or a city’s summer celebration. Goose, not turkey, on the platter. Stockings hung up by the fireplace or stairs. Mistletoe.

My husband celebrates a unique event on Christmas Eve, something he calls “setting the table for the dead.” It was something his Italian grandfather did in the Calabria region of Italy. At the end of the evening when everyone was settling down for sleep, the table would get set with the best dishes or china, with food that wouldn’t spoil (nuts, cookies, bread), and unopened bottles of wine. His grandfather would light a candle and place it on the table and invite all of their ancestors to come and celebrate. The candle would remain lit all night long, then blown out when the family gathered for Christmas breakfast. My husband is the only one of his siblings to ever celebrate this tradition, and he still celebrates it to this day. I like the thought of inviting all those who came before us to come and celebrate what goodness they brought to all of us. My husband’s daughters think it’s silly. My daughters think it borders on insanity. I doubt any of them will carry on the tradition.

When my daughters were little, our house was the only one in the neighborhood to celebrate St. Nick’s night. It wasn’t something my parents had done when I was a child, nor my then-husband’s parents. But it was a tradition I wanted to create so my children would have a unique memory of the holidays. In that sense, it was a gift of tradition I gave in the hopes that it would continue. So far only one of my daughters is a parent and she has not continued this tradition. I’m still holding out that one of the others will.

Another tradition that occurs at this time of year is the annual holiday card and letter. Many people love to get these photocopied letters with all the news from beginning to end of the year. Yet others find these letters impersonal and tacky. I’m one of those who enjoys getting cards and letters, no matter what they look like or what format they take. To me each card and letter is a gift—a sharing of life events and stories. Sadly, sometimes you don’t know how much these cards and letters mean to you until one doesn’t come and later you find out that person has passed away.