On Giving Thanks

Confession: Our family does not go to church.

That’s not to say that we’ve never gone to church, it’s just that we aren’t regular church-goers. Heck, we aren’t even annual church-goers. To be completely honest, we’ve been to church together as a family once. It was Christmas Eve and my sister thought we should  “try it out” for something different to do. It was as though she were suggesting we prepare a roast beef for dinner as opposed to our usual glazed ham.

“Why not?” And since none of us had a good enough answer, we went.

Our church experience that evening was neither good nor bad, but with the lights and the stage, the cushioned chairs and the Christian rock band, it was nothing like the church we remembered.

We haven’t been back since.

DSC06957

I mean, I don’t think our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City counts. Does it?

Fairly early in our marriage, I realized that my husband and I didn’t exactly share the same religious beliefs. I would say that I’m two-thirds spiritual and one-third Christian. My husband? I would call him agnostic, which is why I was a little surprised when not that long ago, I suggested we start saying grace at dinnertime, and he wholeheartedly agreed.

What I was proposing wasn’t necessarily religious. I’d been listening to this podcast with food writer Michael Pollan about conscious eating, and in it, he suggested that we take time to really think about where the food on our plates came from: Think about the farmer who grew that lettuce, the animal who provided the meat in your hamburger, the chicken who laid those eggs.

If I wanted our family to begin a practice of saying grace, this sounded like a good place to start, and it is how we initially introduced the idea to our kids. Still, the end goal wasn’t to raise children who were just more conscious of their plates, rather to raise children who were more conscious of their world.

I’ll admit, right from the start, my husband was better at remembering to say grace than I was. By the time I had prepared the meal, served it, and sat down, I was often on my second or third forkful when my husband would “a-hem” and begin, “I’m thankful for…”

Our girls quickly learned to give thanks for everything on the table. From slaughtered salmon to sacrificed broccoli, there was not a grain of rice nor a garnish of parsley that wasn’t included in the litany.

Still, if we wanted to encourage our children to move beyond just talking about their food (and we did), they were going to need some better modeling.

Giving thanks is an act of appreciation that needs to be practiced, but, according to Happiness Coach Andrea Reiser, “gratitude goes beyond good manners—it’s a mindset and a lifestyle.”

It was this mindset, this lifestyle, I wanted to foster.

affection-appreciation-art-424517

Studies have shown that cultivating gratitude results in living a happier, more satisfied life. It can also increase self-esteem, optimism, hope, and empathy.

I’d witnessed this empathy recently when I chaperoned a field trip with my daughter’s fifth-grade class. They were headed to the Reno municipal court to learn about the legal system, but first, we’d taken the children to a nearby park to eat their bagged lunches. It was here that they encountered several of the area’s homeless sitting by the river and napping in the sunshine. Unbeknownst to their teacher, some of the boys in the class had decided to give their lunches to them.

“Had they asked me first, I would have told them no.” Their teacher said. “That’s probably why they didn’t ask me,” he chuckled.

On our way to the courthouse, I ended up walking behind these same boys. As they passed by the people to whom they’d donated their food, the men called out their thanks. “God bless you. God bless you.”

The boys waved, and walked a ways in silence before one of them remarked, “That made me feel really good and warm inside.”

“Yeah, it made me feel good… but also, kind of sad.”

“I know what you mean. I’m glad we gave them our food, but I’m sad that they don’t have anywhere to live.”

I wondered if those boys would think differently about their dinners that night, or about their warm beds when they went to sleep. I imagined they would.

Fundamentally, gratitude is about being aware of who or what makes positive aspects of our lives possible, and acknowledging that.” Children especially have a hard time recognizing these things. I hoped that through the act of saying grace, my children might hone their awareness.

Because in some way or another, we’re all blessed, and it serves us well when we recognize that.

We’d been giving our thanks to pigs and chickens and cows for months, when finally, one night, right before we ate, my oldest daughter said, “I’m thankful for people like my mom who care about education, and I’m thankful for the nice people who write books for other people to read.”

This, I thought. This is what I had hoped would come from a ritual of saying grace.

IMG_7098.PNG

According to Brené Brown, “What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.” My children are certainly privileged—more than some, and less than others– but I don’t ever want them to grow up feeling entitled. Saying grace is one of the many ways we can combat that, but there are so many other benefits to living a conscious life.

We still don’t go to church, and we occasionally forget to say grace before we eat, but a few times each week, we remember to pause and reflect upon our blessings, and for that, I am thankful.

What are you grateful for today?

FOR MORE LIKE THIS, FOLLOW ME ON READINGWHILEEATING OR LIKE MY PAGE ON FACEBOOK

 

 

The Clap

No…this is not a blog post on venereal disease. I’m talking about clapping. The act of moving your hands back and forth together in a production of noise. There’s the golf clap, the slow clap, the Friends theme song clap, even the ironic clap. You can clap with gusto and enthusiasm or half-heartedly give an obligatory clap because everyone else is doing it. A non-verbal indicator of praise and satisfaction, there are several varieties of claps, and I’m a fan of most.

FullSizeRender (2)

I use the clap in my classroom quite often. After students share anything they’ve written– be it an essay or journal– we clap. Sometimes when several students are sharing similar responses, we save up for one big ‘community clap’ at the end. Sometimes a student will start a clap early, resulting in a whole-class, feel-good chuckle. It’s always amusing to see that one kid with his arms poised, hands a half-foot apart, eagerly awaiting the moment the last sentence is read so he can be the first one to begin the clap.

I remember fondly when people used to clap at the end of movies. While it still happens from time to time (in children’s films mostly) it isn’t often I’ve heard ‘the clap’ at the end of other films. My husband knows, if we’ve just seen a particularly good blockbuster, that I will be that person who tries to start ‘the clap.’ He always watches in a mix of amusement and embarrassment, waiting to see if, like VD, it will spread.

Another place where I get to experience ‘the clap’ is in yoga. At the end of every yoga class, there is ‘the clap.’ Even the yoga teacher will clap, which does cause some confusion. I thought we were clapping for her. But apparently she’s also clapping for us, or maybe she’s clapping for herself too, but that seems a little too narcissistic for a yogi…At any rate, we all clap, and I love that.

Probably one of my favorite claps, is “the airplane just safely landed” clap, especially if there was a lot of turbulence during the flight. It’s as if all the passengers are simultaneously celebrating being alive. How awesome is that? For one moment, every single person on that aircraft shares a moment of thanks. Yet the last time I flew, there were very few people participating in the airplane clap, and I was disappointed. My husband desperately tried to get me to not be the clapper. “Just wait and see if anyone else claps first,” he begged of me. But I am not a lemming, and clap I did.

He tried to argue that one should only clap if the flight was particularly rough. “Landing the plane is their job. You don’t clap just because someone did their job.” But that logic fails when you consider that people clap at the end of a concert, a comedy show, a ballet. Those entertainers were just doing their jobs too, yet we clap for them. Why shouldn’t we clap for our mechanic or our hairdresser? My gynecologist might be a little startled if I started clapping at the commencement of my annual exam, but I don’t doubt for a minute that it wouldn’t spice up her workday to hear a hearty round of applause as she removed her gloves.

After all, a clap is just a way of showing your appreciation, your approval, your acknowledgement of a job well done. And that always feels good. So why don’t we clap more often? Why do we shy away from giving others that recognition?

We clap for our children, especially when they are young. Even before they can speak, they understand a clap means they did something right, and they seek to repeat the behavior that resulted in them getting that praise. We clap when they have gone potty on the toilet. We clap when they successfully build a tower out of blocks. We clap when they perform an impromptu dance in the living room. But as they grow, we clap less and less.

On social media, we have no problem liking someone’s photo or post. When we are behind a screen, we’re more inclined to show our approval (and disapproval); when we are face-to-face, this act becomes harder to do. Yet it’s those face-to-face interactions that leave an impact, that we remember.

How many times have I thought to myself something complimentary about someone else, yet never opened my mouth to communicate it with them?

IMG_0006

Standing at a road-side food truck, having just come from a swim and still in my bathing suit, the proprietor said to me, “If I looked like you, I would walk around in a bikini too.” She was a heavy-set woman with nothing to gain from her comment. It took me by surprise, and it offered a much-needed boost to my esteem.

Exercising at the gym, I watched two women prepare for a body-building competition. They wore lucite heels and teeny sparkly bikinis. As they practiced their poses, my eyes fell on their long, tanned legs and strong muscles. As I was leaving, I stopped to tell them, “You girls look great.” I could have just walked out like so many others, but I didn’t. Perhaps my comment fell on deaf ears, or perhaps it gave them the extra confidence to rock that stage. I’ll never know, but I do know that I felt good having told them. Praise works both ways, which is an added bonus of bestowing it.

In a world where there is so much negativity and hatred, I think we all need to spend more time spreading positivity, whether it be verbal or non-verbal in its form.

So the next time you think I really like that woman’s shoes, tell her. The next time your spouse does something you appreciate, let him or her know. The next time your spin class ends, clap your hands. I promise you, it won’t hurt a bit.