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Four Ways to Cultivate Gratitude for Thanksgiving

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A guy told me yesterday that he was jealous of me. Not in the traditional sense of the word, like he didn’t want me talking to other guys. Lord knows, I’ve had enough of that in my life.

No, this guy said he was jealous of me because I “treasure things up” in my heart. We had been at a retreat where a scripture was read about Mary, the mother of Jesus, treasuring and pondering things in her heart.

“You obviously live life in the present moment and pay attention and embrace it,” he said. “You treasure and ponder what’s happening in your life.”

Well, being the imperfect person that I am, my first response was muddied with pride, as if somehow I had something to do with this. I tried to look all humble, while thinking “Yeah, he’s right; I am pretty cool.”

Then reality tapped me on the shoulder, and I remembered that this gift of mine is truly just that — a gift. What he was talking about, though he didn’t name it, was gratitude. I’ve always had it, but I realized the extent of it a few years ago when I was getting out of the car and cracked my head on the door. It hurt like hell, and my first response – really – was to say to myself, “Thank God I have a skull.”

I was born with the gift of gratitude, which can’t help but lead to joy. Could there be a better gift?

Isn't it Good to be Alive?

Isn’t it Good to be Alive?

It’s hard for me to remember that not everyone is like this. I can be impatient with people who tend to look at the dark side or who complain about their woeful lot in life. I lack compassion in this area. I often think, “Just get over it. Why can’t you look at the bright side?” Does that sound mean-spirited? Sorry. I said I was grateful, not necessarily nice.

What Do You Bring to the Table?

Thanksgiving week is a good time to take a look at the gifts you’ve been given — not just the abundant food and roof-over-your-head type of gifts, but your inner gifts. The stuff you’re made of.

What “default traits” are you grateful for? Do you have inner gifts you were born with or that you have learned or cultivated?

I have friends who laugh easily. People naturally want to be around them. I have a friend who listens really intently. People seek her out for counsel and comfort. Another friend is endlessly curious. She reads voraciously and loves to talk about just about anything. She exudes enthusiasm and energy. I have another friend who always sees both sides of a situation. She’s the type who says, “Well, think of it this way…” and then you feel guilty for being judgmental. I think you might call that the gift of mercy. And what about the people who have the gift of hospitality? They just open their homes to you spontaneously. What a gift!

Maybe you have the gift of dignity, which I wrote about recently — we need more examples of people who value themselves and treat themselves with respect. Same with animals and the planet – do you have a respect for creation that can help others see the sacred all around them? Share that gift; the world sorely needs it!

Four Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

My gift is gratitude, so I’ll share that gift with you for Thanksgiving. Here are four things you can do to cultivate gratitude in your own life:

  • See above. What do you bring to the table? What are your inner gifts? Make a list of all the parts of your character that you like. This is your list of building materials, the things that when cultivated will help you be grateful for who you are. Reflect on these assets — treasure them in your heart.

“I’m learning to treat myself as if I am valuable. I find that when I practice long enough, I begin to believe it.” Anonymous

  • Make a nightly gratitude list. It doesn’t have to be long. Just make a list of all the things that come to mind for which you are grateful on that particular day. Smells, meals, a smile from a stranger. I’m willing to bet that if you do this every day for a week, you will be a happier person. You’ll start looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart

  • If you find yourself obsessing about something negative or troublesome, as we all do from time to time, ask yourself, “how important is it?” Really. In the big scheme of things. Practice letting go of the thoughts and consciously substituting grateful and positive thoughts.

“That the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change. But that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” Chinese proverb

  • Are you harboring resentment? I’ve heard it said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Try looking at the narrative you’ve constructed about that person or situation. How might you look at it differently? Can you consider how that resentment might be an opportunity for you to grow spiritually or challenge yourself to break old assumptions or patterns? What are you learning from the situation, where is the hidden gift in the mire?

“There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.” Richard Bach

“Nothing is either good or bad. It’s thinking that makes it so.”

William Shakespeare

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Light and Dark in the New Year

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One of the most mysterious aspects of life is the simultaneous — even symbiotic — existence of darkness and light, sadness and joy. I used to think that events, people, and years were good or bad, light or dark. The two never mixed.

A bad thing was anything that did not make me happy. I would do anything to avoid feeling sadness.

For me, the holidays resurrect this dusty dream of pure perfection from the cobwebby corners of my brain, and remind me of the vast distance between reality and my old chimera.

Being Small and Being Happy

In my childhood memory, this perfection still exists. Surrounded by reindeer wrapping paper, I’m sitting on the floor next to my giant doll with the glossy brown hair and perfectly pink cheeks, inhaling her glorious just-unwrapped-plastic smell.  I’m trying to fit a tiny spatula into her hand so she can use my shiny new Easy Bake Oven. Silent Night is playing on the radio. There is no darkness in this memory, no shadow. All is well.

All is Well

But of course all is not well. My father is probably pouring his second martini of the morning in the kitchen, and my mother is looking at her Joy of Cooking, but not really seeing the cranberry sauce recipe because she’s desperately trying to figure out a way to stop the scenes she knows will come later. My older brother is having an overly dramatic asthma attack brought on by an earlier temper tantrum, which was probably brought on my Mom’s inattention. My big sister is sulking up in her room, sinking into her pre-adolescent phase where she’ll be lost to us for a few years.

We are in an arms race with the Russians, the Cubans are planning missile bases, and in a few years JFK will be assassinated.

But I am happy. Children are able to exist fully in the moment, focused and oblivious to the shadows. No doubt I’ll get tired and cranky later and start fussing, and the whole world will seem all dark, all hopeless, and irredeemable.

Being Fully Human

As we age, our perspective changes, the camera draws back and we see a little bit of the bigger picture. Darkness and light exist together, and we need them both to become fully human.

We would not know grief if we had not known love. We would not learn compassion if we did not experience pain. We would not have met the heroes of 9/11 or Newtown if darkness had not prevailed first.

We would not recognize the goodness of George Bailey if Mr. Potter did not exist.

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) pleads for help from Mr. Potter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning to See in the Dark

For me, the world is becoming more and more about redemption, about finding a light within that gives meaning to the darkness. Not trying to escape the darkness, but learning to see in the dark.

Since the darkness is there, along with the light, why not learn what we can from it? Live into it all? Embrace the darkness while we wait for more light?

Instead of forced merriment and constant busyness that keeps loneliness at bay, I choose to feel the melancholy that sometimes creeps in during the holiday season. To take time to miss the people who are gone, and to remember to pray for the hurting in the world.

A Beautiful Longing

The image of perfection and pure light that we carry in our hearts is about longing — it’s what we are meant to strive for. The darkness in the world makes us yearn for the light even more. That’s a good thing.

I’ll be walking on the beach New Year’s Day, God willing. I’ll stop to watch the ebb and flow of the tide, to admire the light and shadows on the crests and troughs of the waves. It will be beautiful.

Girl Holding the Sun, Sunrise - Public Domain Photos, Free Images for Commercial Use

It Will Be Beautiful

Have a Blessed New Year

All is Not Merry in Connecticut

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As the news continues to pour in about the latest horrific school shooting – dozens dead at an ELEMENTARY school in Connecticut this time – we are reminded that all is not well just because there are red and green lights strung about. The world can be a shocking and painful place.

I had been meaning to blog about grief during the holiday season, and today seems appropriate.

This is not a breezy or light-hearted post, as mine are wont to be. No pictures, no humor.

If you need it, read it. Otherwise, skip it or share it with someone who does need it.

This is about surviving terrible loss.

I am grateful that although I’ve experienced a lot of pain and losses over the past five years, this holiday season, things seem to be getting back on an even keel.

Thank God. Being down at this time of year is the pits. This is my fifth Christmas without my mother. Certain carols still bring on the tears, but the grief is no longer acute, just a deep vacancy within my heart.

Grief is a life-long process, as we incorporate painful losses into our lives – the death of beloved friends and family, the loss of our health or our home, broken relationships, job changes, and other major transitions. The holidays can be an especially difficult time, even many years after a loss.

Often we experience the “holiday blues” simply because holidays bring up memories and highlight changes in our lives. If you’re feeling down, you are not alone. Many people would probably welcome a few quiet moments during this busy season to listen to you and to share a few memories of their own. Reach out and let people know how you are feeling.

Here are a few tips that might help you get through holiday grieving.

  • Stay Connected with your Feelings

Give yourself permission to feel and express your emotions. Make sure to create time and space to honor your feelings. There is no ‘right way’ to do this – write in a journal, go for a walk, meditate and pray, exercise. Be present with your own grief and by all means, cry if you need to. Tears are an emotional release and help cleanse our bodies of toxins. If others are uncomfortable with your tears, that’s their issue. This is your grief and your holiday. And if a little happiness or even joy creeps in this year, embrace it. Don’t feel guilty. Mixed emotions are normal during bereavement, especially during this season.

  • Be Kind to Yourself

Get plenty of rest, eat nourishing foods and drink lots of water. Try to avoid excessive alcohol and sweets, which can contribute to depression and stunt your grieving process by numbing your feelings. Put your health and healing first. Simplify and try not to over-do social engagements, shopping, decorating and other holiday “musts.” Do what you can, but give yourself permission to miss a party or buy cookies instead of baking them. Skip the Christmas cards unless they help you process. Slow down. Take a bubble bath, a tea break, read a book, get a massage. Treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend who has been bereaved. Be alone when you need to, and reach out when you want company.

  • Plan Ahead

Don’t allow the holidays to simply happen to you. Give yourself as much control as you can; know where you will be, and when. Keep your schedule manageable and learn to politely decline invitations. Decide which activities and traditions are helpful and which are not. Choose to be with safe, supportive people and put off the “obligations.” Remember to give yourself time to be alone with your feelings. You might try taking your family and other people in smaller doses – look into staying in a hotel or plan an “escape break” to a park or a movie during your holiday activities.

  • Communicate your Feelings and Needs

Let people know how you are feeling. Tell them what you can handle, and what is too much for you. Be open about what you want to talk about and what you would rather not. Ask for help with chores, errands, and decorating. Guide your friends and family in the best way to help you. You are not a burden. People feel good about helping and just need to know what you need.

  • Say No to Expectations and Comparisons

Don’t try to live up to expectations of how you should feel or act – your own or other people’s. You may even feel expectations from your deceased loved one, “She would have wanted me to…” If you’re religious, you might think that “Godly people” should not be sad or depressed – but Jesus wept and grieved for people. Try not to compare yourself or your family with others. Everyone grieves in different ways – give yourself plenty of space and grace. Accept your limitations and don’t beat yourself up.

  • Create or Eliminate Traditions and Rituals

Talk to your family and decide which rituals and traditions are healing. Some may be too painful. Compromise with each other. Incorporate memories of your loved one into your holiday. Write poems or prayers, light a candle, create a memorial piece of artwork together. Hang a new ornament, volunteer at a nonprofit that your loved one supported. Remember that what you do this year doesn’t have to be repeated next year. You may choose a new ritual next year. Do what feels right for you now.

  • Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Professional Help

If you are feeling overwhelmed or immobilized by negative or destructive emotions, don’t try to be super human. There are many support groups and programs that can help. Most counties have hospice grief groups during the holidays.

  • Remember, You Will Survive

This time of year will likely be the most difficult season of your grief. But you will get through it. Our anticipation of the holidays is always worse than the holiday itself. You don’t have to enjoy the holidays; you don’t even have to pretend. Rest and be kind to yourself. You are not alone.

How Not to Screw Up Your Holidays

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I guess they are officially here now.

The Holidays.

And you know what that means.

Crazy busy…OMG, I’m so stressed out…I’m so behind with my shopping…Oh no, not another open house!

Stuff We Don’t Need

Every year since my mother died – it’s been four now – I slip away around Thanksgiving to get myself mentally prepared to bow out of the madness. I spend a few weeks at my little writing retreat in New Hampshire and arrive home serene and centered, only to be met with a rush of busyness that knocks me over like a gust of arctic air. No one can stand against it.

This year I am determined. I bought lots of nice chocolates and some calendars – no unneeded gifts, no Christmas cards that waste paper and burn fuel as they jet across the country.

I’m thrilled that my neighbor is making Christmas dinner, so I don’t even have to clean my house, let alone get my pots and pans all dirty.

My Gift to You

Red Christmas Present

To Blog Friends, From Santa

My gift to you, blog friends, is a wonderful essay written this summer, which seems particularly salient as we approach December.

Here are a few excerpts, but I do hope you’ll click on the link and read the whole thing.

  • “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”

This is a crucial distinction. We are not victims. This busyness did not happen to us. If you feel too busy, you are likely choosing that. I’m not talking about the people who are working three jobs just to make ends meet; most of us choose our lifestyles, our material “needs,” and our activities, and we can change our minds about what we’ve chosen. We can also change our approach to the holidays.

  • It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.”

I was a part of this dynamic when I worked as an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill. I bought into it and tried to live up to it.”Really? You’re not working this weekend?” Or, “You’re leaving already?” There can be an added undertone of righteousness when the work is not-for-profit. At Christmas, it’s about competitive shopping and competitive social calendars.

  • Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day … I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

Wow – right between the eyes. I could not agree more. This is especially poignant at a time of year when we should probably be reflecting on the deeper meaning of our lives. Maybe that’s why the pace increases!

  • Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain … The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

This is one of the reasons that becoming a writer attracted me. It gives me “permission” to withdraw from the busyness, for the sake of my creativity. It seems you have to have a special waiver to escape the busyness trap.

  • “I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.”

This is the wonderful gift of a well-lived Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. We get to spend real, honest, spacious, wondrous time with the people we love.

People I Love

You Can Do This

Here’s the full blog by Tim Kreider – I hope you’ll take the time to draw a few deep breaths, put your feet up, and read this:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

While you’re at it, here’s a timely piece about the strikers at Walmart, trying to strike a blow (so to speak) for sanity and time with family over the holidays. It’s written by a pastor who points out that Americans work more than any other people in the industrialized world. Perhaps as much as A MONTH more each year. Ponder that.

Thanks and giving: Why Wal-Mart “Black Friday” strikes are important – Guest Voices – The Washington Post

Do yourself a favor. Make a holiday plan now, and schedule in downtime. Alone time to reflect. Leisure time with your family. Face time (not racing-between-parties time) with your best friends. You can do this. (I’m talking to myself as much as to you!)

I wish you peace and happiness and idle time with people you love. Merry, Happy, and Blessed…

hanukkah icon menorahChristmas tree decoratedkinara  Kwanzaa Candles

photo credits to Clipart and : <a href=”http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=13063&picture=inside-a-christmas-shop”>Inside A Christmas Shop</a> by Petr Kratochvil

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