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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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There’s No Place Like Home

When you pack up all your belongings in a U-Haul and move to the other side of the country, everything changes. Your relationships with family and friends, the way you travel, and especially holidays.

Growing up with a mother who has six sisters, you end up having more cousins than you can count on both hands. There was only a slight age gap between my youngest aunt and my oldest cousin, and each year, our family grew.

From games of Yahtzee in my grandmother’s basement to Secret Santa gift exchanges at Christmastime, family parties were a regular occurrence. There was always lots of food and even more laughter. Family members would take turns hosting; warm homes would welcome us from the cold. Women would cluster around the kitchen table and gossip on sofas while men stood sentinel around the cooler, drinking beers and smoking cigars. Children would run and play games until the time when we’d all load our plates high with homemade favorites, vying for a place to sit. Whether it was Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter, there’d be a cake and we would gather round and sing, for someone always had a birthday nearby.

Moving to Nevada, perhaps the hardest adjustment to make was redefining the holidays, especially once my husband took a job where he didn’t always have them off.

I remember our daughter’s second Christmas, I sat on the floor in her nursery and rocked her in my lap while she sucked at a bottle. I felt the wetness of my cheeks and I felt the loneliness. I couldn’t put words to my sadness, but it was as heavy as my daughter’s little body on top of me. My husband was at work and we were at home alone. No one would know that we had stayed in our pajamas all day, but we hadn’t gotten dressed for there was nowhere to go. Santa had come the night before so that my husband could watch our little girl tear at the wrapping paper, but even that had felt wrong. That morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I picked at the leftovers from the dinner I’d prepared the day before. Hours spent in the kitchen for a meal for three. There’d been no procession of tinfoil covered dishes, no hotplates plugged into every wall. There wasn’t a line of women with dishtowels ready to grab the next pot or pan as it had been washed. All day long, I talked to family on the phone, hearing the clatter and din of their company in the background, hearing the TV in mine.

Eleven years after moving, I’d like to say that I’ve adjusted. Most years we spend Christmas with my folks and Thanksgivings with my sister. Even when she moved to California, one of us would make the drive so that when we gave thanks, we were holding each other’s hands. Some years, the friends who have become our family have joined us, adding a few more place settings, making it almost feel like home.

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This year, however, things have changed. My sister lives in Florida now, making a Thanksgiving reunion not possible, my friends are traveling for the holiday, and while my husband will be off from work, it will just be the four of us.

Realizing this, I spent weeks musing about what we could do. I felt the need to make the holiday different somehow. I mean, it was already going to be different, but maybe if we did something so unlike our traditions, I wouldn’t feel the sadness I feared. Could we rent a cabin in the woods and get away? I pictured us playing a board game near a fireplace, snuggling into flannel sheets and waking in the morning to take a hike through pine-scented air. Yet I knew that renting a cabin wasn’t really in the budget so soon after our vacation to New York and one month before Christmas, and besides, we could do all those things from our own home. Still, I kept wracking my brain and asking my husband what we were going to do.

“What do you mean, what are we going to do? We’re going to have Thanksgiving.”

He didn’t understand, and I didn’t know how to tell him.

“Yeah, but it’s just us, so like, what are we going to do?”

This need to do was palpable.

If I could come up with a plan, if there was an itinerary, perhaps it would be enough to distract me from the fact that it was just us, perhaps it could thwart the sadness, because if I felt the sadness at Thanksgiving, I most certainly was going to feel it at Christmas when my husband would be at work and when it would, for the first time in a long time, be just me and my girls, because this year, my parents weren’t coming for Christmas, and this year, we weren’t going there either, and I wasn’t quite sure how I would handle that.

I wish I could say that I only wept that one Christmas when my daughter was two, but the Holiday Blues are something that I have felt each year. Sometimes, after Christmas has passed, I begin to cry and it’s days before I can stop. I’ll be standing in my kitchen with a cup of tea, steeped in sadness and shame. What’s wrong with me that I cannot feel happiness at what’s supposed to be the most joyful time of year? Despite combatting it every way I know how, sometimes it’s stronger.

A few weeks into my quest for what we would do on Thanksgiving, I was driving in my car, listening to Pico lyer speak about The Art of Stillness when I realized that I didn’t need to do anything for Thanksgiving, I needed to be. It didn’t matter if we decided to go cut down our Christmas tree or run the Turkey Trot. It didn’t matter if we stayed in our pajamas or got dressed up. It didn’t matter if we deep fried our turkey or went to KFC. Whether there were four of us at the table or twenty-four, unless I could be fully present with my family, there would be no hope of holiday cheer.

You can’t have your body in one place and your mind in another and feel anything but conflicted. The answer wasn’t in the doing, the answer was in the being.

Thanksgiving is a time to be full. Full of food, yes, but also emotionally full. We take time to reflect all that we’ve been blessed with. When I think of my family—both near and far—I know that I have so much to be thankful for.

I can’t say for sure that I won’t end up feeling the Holiday Blues this year. I know that I will miss my sister fiercely come Thanksgiving and that Christmas isn’t going to be the same, but I am going to try hard to remember this: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

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To Forgive, Divine

I picked up my copy of Rising Strong in the airport while we waited for the first leg of our flight that would take us to Mexico. As my children browsed the souvenirs, I perused the titles of paperbacks with no intention of buying anything. After all, I had a book I needed to finish for my book club and I’d packed my Kindle with a memoir I’d downloaded that I was prepared to start as well, but by the time I boarded the plane, I also had Brené Brown’s latest title in hand.

Mexico was the vacation that we had hoped it would be. Instead of visiting family in Florida or New York, we took our children to a place where we knew no one, where we were tourists. We lounged by pools while waiters offered us happy hour drinks all day long. They brought our children cheesy nachos and brought us salted margaritas all while the sun turned our skin different shades of pink.

For one whole week, I turned my cell phone off and never once checked email or social media. We watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean, and despite the birds that circled overhead threatening to pluck them from the sand, we didn’t interfere. Later, I watched my own children playing together in the brackish waves; I felt extremely blessed to have witnessed both in the same day, knowing these were memories I would cherish forever.

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We didn’t realize when we booked our trip that we were headed to Mexico during their rainy season, but we didn’t mind the few afternoons when the thunderstorms cracked open the sky. We watched from the balcony as sheets of rain danced from the sea towards the mountains and lightening sizzled through the humid air. These interruptions in paradise were just another part of our experience, but there was a darker storm approaching.

While returning from the pool one afternoon, I sat next to my oldest daughter on the golf cart that would shuttle us back to our hotel when she turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly.”

Of all the ways I could have responded, I settled on, “That doesn’t make me feel good.”

And it didn’t.

And it didn’t and it didn’t.

You see, from that moment on, I scrutinized my cellulite in the mirrors of the elevator, I ordered the salad instead, I declined dessert.

I was still on vacation. I was still stifling my laughter as my husband attempted to speak the language. I was still holding hands with my children, jumping into the pool together. The sun kept trying to peek through, but that squall was inside me.

I thought about my own mother, a woman whom I had only ever seen as beautiful. As a child, I don’t remember ever intentionally saying anything critical of her looks because I never thought there was anything to criticize. Why did my own children not see me the same way?

“Maybe she just has a different perception of beauty.” My husband’s words, meant to console me, offered no solace. Maybe I’m not a good mother.

Each night, as I dressed for dinner, my husband showered me with compliments, but they couldn’t permeate my own belief that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

She’s right, I told myself. My stomach is soft and jiggly. I am not the best version of myself. I have failed. I am a failure.

Brown writes, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” Yet here I was in Mexico, with this story stuck on repeat. I had fallen into this narrative and despite having finished the book, I was not rising strong.

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Had I been home, I likely would have taken to the gym. I would have sat down to write or meditate. I would have engaged in some retail therapy, a little time by myself till those clouds rolled away. Here in Mexico, the maid left chocolate every night by the side of my bed. Every morning I needed to don a bikini again; I hadn’t even packed a cover-up! And the drinks were TWO for ONE for crying out loud.

I could escape neither storm nor story.

Back in the states, I woke the next morning and headed straight to yoga. The following day, I hit the treadmill. Popping in my ear-buds, I scrolled through my podcasts. Knowing I could benefit from something inspirational, I decided on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Two episodes was all it took.

The first episode I listened to was a conversation with Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, a book I had read ages ago. Oprah and Ruiz discuss how 95 percent of what we believe is not true, they are stories we tell ourselves, and behind those stories lie our fears—fears that we are not good enough, are not beautiful enough, are not worthy. This sounded familiar—it sounded like Brené Brown.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “The human is the only animal on earth that pays 1000 times for the same mistake.”

How many times had I beaten myself up over this same story? How many times had I questioned my self-worth because of what I thought I, or someone else, saw in me?

The second episode was a conversation with Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul. I haven’t read this book (yet), but here I found the answer to the bigger question: How do I break this cycle?

Singer uses the analogy of a thorn embedded deep in one’s skin, touching a nerve. He says we have two choices: We can live with the thorn and try to avoid all those things in life that disturb it, or we can grab our tweezers and take that thorn out.

In keeping the thorn in, we not only alter how we live our lives, we also train everyone around us so they don’t ever touch that thorn. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I? Through my reaction and my behavior, I was training my family that this was a thorn not to be touched.

On the contrary, if we remove the thorn, we don’t ever have to deal with it again. We can start to enjoy life, and that, Singer says, is spirituality.

Whoa.

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Oprah asks, “How do you know what your thorn is?”

Singer’s answer: “Disturbance tells you. Just like pain happens outside, disturbance happens inside.”

Singer claims that the moment something disturbs you, if you don’t let it pass right through you, the energy of it will drag you down. “When a problem shows up with that chitter-chatter in your mind, the first reaction must be to lean away from it.”

Ruiz believes, “forgiveness is the most important thing.” Oprah explains that by forgiveness, he means to “let it go; do not be tied to the past.” While my daughter had apologized, I didn’t need to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself.

My daughter’s words to me were not what hurt me, nor did she intend to hurt me. My daughter’s words disturbed my thorn, a thorn that I have carried around with me for a long, long time. But in that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to take it personally when I should have chosen forgiveness.

The second of the four agreements is Don’t Take Anything Personally. When we take something personally, it “is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything then is about me.” Mexico wasn’t supposed to be about me. Mexico was supposed to be about us. I was making it about me.

If I could go back to that moment when my daughter turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly,” I would lean far, far away from my discomfort—even if that meant falling off the damn golf cart. I don’t want another internal storm to cloud an otherwise amazing family vacation. Yet maybe this storm was necessary in realizing what needed to be washed clean.

I’ve since ordered a copy of The Untethered Soul. I plan to turn the pages with my tweezers in hand.

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Love and Loss: What Children Learn from Having Pets

The last time we took the whole family back to New York, my children were handed money and gifts wherever they went. Grandparents and great-grandparents were making it rain and when my husband and I protested, they would insist. “We never see them! Let them take it and buy something they’ll like.” We returned home and what they liked was a dwarf hamster.

“You’ll have to wait to ask your father,” I told the girls as we left the pet store that afternoon, and since their father didn’t get home from work till after they were asleep, I thought it was entirely possible they would forget about it.

The first words my youngest spoke that next morning were, “Daddy, can we buy a hamster?”

Whereas my husband owned pet hamsters while growing up, I did not. I had heard many a tale of how whenever his aunt came over he would pretend that his hamster was in the plastic running ball. He would shout for her to look and then he would throw the ball (sans hamster) down the stairs resulting in his aunt having something resembling a coronary attack.

“Please, Daddy. Can we? We’ll take good care of it.” I knew he would say yes.

That afternoon, our girls pooled their money and we came home with a dwarf hamster they named Sugar and all of his accoutrements.

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I did a little research and learned a few interesting tidbits about dwarf hamsters. In addition to finding out what fresh foods we should and should not feed him, I also learned that they run the equivalent of four marathons each night. If it weren’t for their stubby little legs, they would be one of the faster species on Earth. Our hamster preferred to begin running whenever my husband and I settled down to watch Netflix at night, often resulting in having to disable his wheel until we were ready to retire to bed.

The other thing I learned about dwarf hamsters is that the average life expectancy is only about two years. That didn’t seem very long compared to, say, my cat whom I had for nearly seventeen. Not knowing how old the hamster was when we got him, I often found myself peering hesitantly in his cage during the day, looking for signs of life. Was his fur moving? Could I see the rise and fall of his little belly while he slept? I hadn’t studied a sleeping body this closely since I first brought home a newborn. They both seemed as fragile. 

While there are other hands-on methods for checking for life, there was no way that was happening. As a member of the rodent family, there were some strict rules regarding the hamster. 1) Mom doesn’t clean its cage, and 2) Mom does not touch it. While I thought it was rather cute, it wasn’t cute enough to make me want to cradle the thing in my palm. If the kids wanted to hold him, they’d better ask their dad. And other than that one time that the dog knocked over its cage and I was forced to trap the hamster before it ran under the couch, I stuck to those rules.

We are a home of many animals, but I’m not really an animal lover. My husband acts shocked if he ever catches me petting one of our two dogs. I loved my cat, but cats are assholes, which is probably why I prefer them. You can leave them alone and most times, they’re okay with that.

We got our first dog when our first born was about a year old, and most of why I agreed to it was because I believe that pets are good for children. They teach them so many things: responsibility, kindness, companionship, discipline, and most of all–they teach them about love and loss.

Over the course of my children’s lives, they’ve said goodbye to several goldfish, a crawdad, a hermit crab, and two cats. One cat “ran away” to live with another family; I suspect a family of coyotes, but I didn’t share that part with my then three-year old daughter. My cat, Milo, was put down the Christmas Eve before last. It was difficult saying goodbye to a companion who had witnessed nearly two decades of my life. He had seen me marry and have children. He had let those children pull on his tail and decorate him with tiaras and beaded necklaces. We all loved him, and he had loved us back.

Recently, when my husband mentioned that Sugar had been awake all day, running on his wheel, I thought, that’s strange. In hindsight, that day of running must have been his last hoo-rah, the sudden burst of energy and alertness one experiences at the end of life. The following day, when I told my daughter to clean the cage, she took it to the counter in the kitchen, opened the door, and lifted the little house.

“Sugar must be really tired,” she said.

Shit. 

Peering in at him, his fur was not moving; there was no rise or fall in his little belly. It had been about two years, and our hamster had died.

My little one cried. In between giant tears, she lifted her head off my chest.

“Mommy, I want a guinea pig.”

Oh, hell no! Now a kitten on the other hand…

Later that evening, we each said a few words about Sugar before my husband buried him in the flower garden. The word my youngest chose was family.

I never wanted my children to grow up not knowing about death. Things we love leave us. Sometimes that happens at the end of a life, but often times, it just happens. Dealing with loss may not ever get easier, but in having pets, my children will grow up knowing that when you love something, you do all you can to give it a good life, and at the end of that life, if you can say that you’ve done that, then you’ve done your best. No one can ask for anything more.