Monday, November 24, 2014

Gratitude Journal #256

Today, I am grateful that I was born 48 years ago. I'm grateful to be back in an even year...although 47 was a pretty good year considering it's odd and even a prime number! (I'm also grateful that I don't take this number stuff seriously.)

Today, I am grateful for my birthday buddy: Aunt Linda. She's my mom's sister, and I've always appreciated that she calls me the best birthday present my mom ever gave her! She taught me how to drive a manual shift car, and she has amazing talents in most everything she turns her attention to...woodworking, decorating, horseback riding, cooking, quilting, you name it. Love you, Linda!

Today, I am grateful for tasty rib eye steak and the man who grilled mine to perfection. Thanks, George!

Today, I am grateful for greeting cards. My birthday cards from friends and family continue to give me joy.

Today, I am grateful for Thanksgiving week, for Junior High show choir Christmas performances, for lights going up all over town, for good smells and happy faces!

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Looking Sideways at Thanksgiving


We all know the clich├ęs of Thanksgiving: "Thank you, God, for my family and friends, my great country, my health, this delicious turkey, yadda, yadda...."

No doubt we are thankful for these things, unless of course your family has taken the fun out of dysfunctional or the turkey is dry. Then, you're thankful for the moisture cranberry sauce adds to the turkey or for the fact that your family is complaining about dry turkey in another state.

Let's shake things up this Thanksgiving by looking under the surface of our gratitude and examining those under-appreciated things that make life pleasant--or perhaps even possible--moment to moment. Let's look closely at our lives and figure out what we're neglecting that really deserves our gratitude.

For example, I'm grateful for the little white cardboard box that Jack used to bury his dead betta early this week. I'd purchased the box for pennies years ago with vague crafty plans for it but never got around to using it. Jack absolutely didn't want to flush his fish down the toilet, the box was just the right size and easily buried. Jack's visiting the grave each day after he comes home from school. Putting the fish in the box gave some closure to Jack as he learns how to mourn. That cheap little box has value I'm so grateful for.

I'm also grateful for the many customer service people I've encountered lately. No one has been rude or short with me in a very long time, and now that I think about it, I've noticed more smiles lately. The pharmacy tech I saw Tuesday gave me a smile that positively blew me away. I've been blithely taking their good service and attitude for granted. Shame on me! I've got to smile more myself and show more of a positive attitude, to pay the blessing forward.

This morning on the ride to school, we were stuck behind a bus so the car filled with diesel exhaust. Nick said, "Whatever that is we're breathing in, it can't be good for us." Probably not, but it made me think how much we take breathing fresh air for granted. If you live in Beijing, however, you probably don't take fresh air for granted at likely want to bottle that gaseous ambrosia and sniff it hourly in a formal worship service.

Which brings up a good point. One person's taken-for-granted blessing is another's precious desire. Don't worry if your sideways look at Thanksgiving yields up results that might seem silly to someone else. Look for things that bless you in unexpected ways or strange places, and then let gratitude fill you up. Your gratitude might even move you to act in some unusual ways, but so be it. Go with the flow.

That's why I'm going to buy a bunch of sanitary napkins to donate to our local food pantry.

Are you up for this Thanksgiving challenge? Will you spend these days leading up to Thanksgiving searching your life for those things you're taking for granted?

Actively looking for things to be grateful for...let's give it a try!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gratitude Journal #255

Today, I am grateful that fifteen years ago, Nick was born. He weighed 6 pounds, 15 ounces and measured 21 inches long.

Now he's taller than I am.

Oh, how I love this young man!

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gratitude Journal #254

Today, I am grateful for all our veterans and for their service to country and to freedom in both peacetime and war.

George in the backseat of a B-1.
Jet noise...the sound of freedom!

Today, I am grateful for George and his post-military career, for his hard work and support of our family.

Today, I am grateful for prayer.

Today, I am grateful for school teachers who differentiate instruction for students who need it. Doing this takes work and skill, and Jack's teachers are doing an amazing job of it!

Today, I am grateful that Nick is truly beginning to love learning and to recognize its power in his life.

Today, I am grateful for friends who encourage and affirm me in my activities, both at church and online. I love you all for that. You keep me going.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Month of Thanksgivings: Darkness and Light


With the change from daylight savings time to standard time comes a renewed awareness of light and dark. Such an artificial rearrangement of daylight hours means eating dinner in the dark and taking children to school as the sun rises, a disconcerting and unbalancing shift from dinner as the sun sets and watching the children move through pools of electric light and utter dark toward the school doors.

This morning, I forgot my sunglasses and was grateful for the wispy clouds that blocked just enough of the sunrise as I headed east away from the schools, toward home. I've not needed my sunglasses for our early morning commute since late September, and just one month is enough to build a habit of leaving them at home.

Darkness or light that appears when it shouldn't unsettles us in some primordial way, tapping into those primitive circadian rhythms that chart their way best through slow, gradual changes, barely noticeable from day to day as the earth wobbles gently and regularly on its axis. If it weren't for clocks, would we even notice the change?

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but in this seasonal dance, she seems rather gentle and kind.

What happens when unnatural darkness enters our lives uninvited and violent? Several friends have been dealing with darkness forced on them by others for the past month, and that got me thinking. My own unpleasant history with the darkness has been dredged up from the depths and swirled around in my mind. It's not depressing, exactly, just sort of a sobering reminder that there's still work to do.

Mary Oliver's verse hits home. It takes years, perhaps a lifetime, to adjust one's thinking after being given a box full of darkness. It also takes effort, and not everyone puts in the hard work of distilling gratitude out of demons.

I've worked long and hard at the distillation process, pouring my bitterness and anger and hurt into the still, and most days I'm able to drink deeply and maintain a buzz of optimistic gratitude. Occasionally, however, the still produces barely a trickle. Strange things--an old song or random phrase or smell or memory--will reveal some bit of darkness hiding in my soul that needs rooting out, pouring out.

And the process of letting go of the demons starts over again.

It gets easier with practice. I've grown confident over the years in this process and learned that holding on hurts me far more than it hurts the demons.

That's one reason why Thanksgiving is such a vital and important holiday for me. It's my annual reminder that we get out of life the effort we put into it. Of all the things I've worked for in life, my attitude of gratitude has borne the most fruit. It's the thing I most want to share with other people, to encourage them in the belief that the surest path of healing is to accept the darkness and turn it into a gift in their own lives. The resulting gratitude fills us up so much that we just have to share it with others.

You can't rush that transformation, though. It takes time and patience and perseverance to see the demons as a gift. That level of gratitude requires commitment for the long haul of life and trust in the process. But it is worth it.

No matter what the clock says, days lengthen and shorten in a dependable, wobbly process of planetary scale. We might get thrown off balance in our perception of it, but we adjust, remember our sunglasses, and drive home heading east into sunrise.

And that's a comforting thought.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

November Blahs

Have you ever noticed that most picture calendars save the ugliest picture for November? I have, and the tendency has always baffled me. I love November for so very many reasons, but its reputation as a depressing, bleak month has been around for a long time.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, October is the glorious month of autumn, and in each year of Anne's life, a glorious October is followed by a gloomy November. Perhaps on Prince Edward Island that is the case, but in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up, the climate allows for a milder November, a month of thanksgivings and birthdays and crystal blue skies and steadiness before the crush of activity that December brings.

I was a girl raised in the South so January was my bleak month of gray, wet skies, coming as it did after the excitement of Christmas, which my family did up in fine fashion, and the anti-climax of New Year's Eve, which my family generally slept through. In fact, I was rather surprised to grow up and discover that Dick Clark's New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square wasn't the only party in the world, and that it is possible to have a great time celebrating the transition from one year to the next.

But still, I generally sleep through it.

Having now lived all over the United States, I've learned that the particular climate any time of year is what it is, and it's best to make the best of it as you are able. In some places, like Columbus, Georgia, summer is unbearably hot and humid, so people adapt by moving from one air-conditioned locale to another. Winter, however, barely happens by more northerly standards. In other places, like Rapid City, South Dakota, summer isn't so bad, but winter is rather long and wet and snowy, and frigid or mildly cold as the mood hits it. One Halloween, it was two degrees and snowed.

In Boise, Idaho, long summer days can be wicked hot and dry, but by 5:00 PM, as the sun moves behind the foothills of the Rockies, temperatures drop, and most restaurants in town serve dinner on outdoor patios. Such a delight! Winter is also dry, with cold and fog and ice and occasional snow, but it never seems to last very long, probably because the sun shines most days. With ski resorts close by, one may stretch winter if one wants to, but Boise's climate is pretty moderate, as far as the high desert plains are concerned.

Ohio weather is grayer than most places we've lived, and more variable. We've had winters that were so deeply frigid that many feet of snow went unblemished by was just too cold to play, and the snow was so powdery and dry that making a snowman simply wasn't an option. We've had other winters when it barely snowed despite weeks of gray skies and humid cold. Summers are equally variable. One year, we had no autumn to speak of, moving directly from hot summer to cold winter. Another year, the transition from spring to summer was just as abrupt.

This autumn has been glorious. October showed its colors gloriously, and some fine color continues to linger on trees and bushes as we move into November. But this, the first day of November, is rainy and cold, with snow appropriate mood-setting atmosphere for All Saints' Day, I suppose.

Our doorbell rang four times last night, for a total of ten or so costumed trick-or-treaters. I drove an enthusiastic Nick around the neighborhood as he dashed up long driveways in the rain to lit front doors opened by people who dumped handfuls of candy into his bag.

The whole neighborhood over-bought candy this year.

Last night, however, no weather would dampen Nick's greedy Halloween spirit. He dressed as a knight and played the part, telling homeowners that their castles were grand and occasionally offering up a hope that the plague wouldn't be bad this year. At one point, he said to me, "Tomorrow starts the Christmas season. I can't wait!" While I resent that Christmas has taken over November and thus taken attention away from Thanksgiving, I appreciated Nick's positive attitude on a night most considered a dud.

After our first few winters in Ohio, I recognized a tendency to harp on the gray gloom, and so I decided to spend a winter intentionally smiling at the cloudy skies and saying out loud for anyone to hear, "What a beautiful day!"

Mind over matter, you understand.

It worked. There is some magical connection between what we say and what we think. If we repeat a mantra often enough, we start to believe it. That winter, I got strange looks from people under their umbrellas, but I never felt better myself. The trick to mustering a happy November or December or January or whatever month gets you down is to choose to look on the bright side.

Assuming you can choose. For people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or really from any form of depression, choosing your mood isn't as simple as repeating a mantra or making your face smile on a gloomy day. Professional help is needed. But for most of us who just find ourselves whiny about winter weather, positive self-talk can turn us around.

One of the best pick-me-ups from seasonal blahs, however, has to do with November thankfulness. Expressing gratitude for what you have by sharing with others--in words or deeds or donations--redirects our attention from our own petty complaints and calls us to purposefully help those whose complaints are anything but petty: children who have no shoes or coats or hats or gloves, families living in a car or a friend's unfinished basement or garage, homeless folks who suffer from mental illness, your next-door neighbor who's going through a nasty don't have to look far to find people whose lives you can improve with a simple, small act of kindness.

November is also the time for the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child. By packing a shoe box for a child in another country, you spread love and good will around the globe. If you register your box with Samaritan's Purse online, you can track the box and know what country it goes to. Last year, Nick's box went somewhere in Africa and Jack's went somewhere in South America. (My memory fails...perhaps Nigeria and Nicaragua?) By watching the video online for that country, both boys learned about conditions in those places of need.

It's harder to whine that your iPod is the wrong color when you see children who are genuinely grateful for pencils and matchbox cars.

Today, the first day of November, with temperatures in the 30's and high, gray clouds blanketing the cold and blocking the sun, I'm taking my boys shopping for their shoe boxes. The boxes must be turned in early to make their destinations by Christmas.

So Nick is right. For us, the Christmas shopping season starts today, November 1. I can't wait to see where our boxes end up.

That will erase the January blahs for sure. Nothing like planning ahead for reasons to smile.

Do you do anything special to overcome seasonal blahs? For those in the southern hemisphere, of course, you're entering summer and leaving the blahs behind. I wonder how it is for those living near the equator, where winter blahs aren't even a thing.