November 23, 2008 Length: 12:09
Before you make out your list to read at the table this coming Thursday, think about those things to be thankful for that have contributed to your salvation.
It was this time of year in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade, that I would make turkeys at school from out of handprints, or Popsicle sticks, or paper bags, even. I would also list on autumn themed worksheets, which we would tack onto bulletin boards designed to look like giant cornucopias, what exactly I was thankful for. Though I can’t say for certain this is true, I would bet that if you compared those lists side-by-side, they would be nearly identical. “I am thankful for my family,” they would undoubtedly have included, “and God, and having food to eat.” In the latter grades, I may have mentioned “freedom” or possibly our mangy Shi-tsu dog, but all in all, it is pretty safe to say, I covered the basics, the expected, and was done with it.
In but a few short days, I will gather around a festively set table with my in-laws where everyone present will take turns sharing why it is they are grateful. In the past, I’ve mentioned pregnancies, employment for my husband, a new home, and yes, God, food and family. There’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious. Counting frequently my overt blessings is an excellent way to dispel the myth that we are somehow missing out on that greener grass up yonder. But I am thinking of mixing things up, just for kicks, perhaps taking my cue from Metropolitan Philaret’s morning prayer: In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to try and redefine what constitutes, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing” by digging around a bit in the dirt, examining closer what appears on the surface to be nothing but plain old yuckiness, in search of meaning, enlightenment - gold. So here is it, a rather unconventional, 2008 version of my thankful list displayed here for your viewing pleasure in no particular order:
Last winter at this time, I became ill with a nasty sinus infection, which moved swiftly to my lungs and rendered me agonizingly unproductive for nearly two months. I couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t function during the day. Our house reeked of sick and sadness and claustrophobia. Remembering back on how my steady diet of sugar and caffeine mixed with zero aerobic activity, had (surprise, surprise) not really fortified my immune system, I determined a few weeks ago to make some serious changes in preparation for the upcoming flu season. Out of sheer terror, I began exercising regularly, watching what I stuck absentmindedly in my mouth, taking my vitamins consistently, and going to bed before 11:00 pm. Although it’s completely possible that I will still get sick despite these extra precautions, the side effects of my wellness inspired vigilance have been remarkable. I am awake, wide awake. I have fewer cravings for empty calories. By hitting bottom, I became desperate enough to better myself physically and ultimately emotionally as well.
The Demanding Threes:
Oh, I know what they say about the terrible twos, how that period from 18 to 36 months is the most trying for parents, the most frustrating. But having lived through that stage four times over, I beg to differ. For me, it was (is) the threes - the “demanding three’s” I like to call them. At three-years-old, each of my children turned a corner developmentally and they used all those burgeoning verbal and reasoning skills to strip me of patience, with the speed and utter thoroughness of piranhas ripping flesh from a floating carcass.
My daughter, Mary, for instance, was a mild mannered baby. She’d play quietly with her toes, smile readily, and drift off in her crib peacefully without me rocking her or pacing the floors back and forth swinging her steadily in my arms. In August, however, she left toddlerhood behind and crossed over the threshold into preschooler territory. Ever since then, pouty lips, nonsensical requirements (such as socks that are neither too tight, too stretchy, too purple nor too bulky, for example) and clinginess have replaced her previous ability to independently entertain herself. She’s also stopped taking naps unless I lie down right beside her until eventually she falls asleep, at which point I can sneak, with ninja-like stealth, out of her bedroom.
At first this new cramp in my afternoon schedule made me fume inside with annoyance, thinking of all I wasn’t accomplishing just lying there for half an hour, staring at the walls. After several days of this, however, I surrendered to the present situation at hand, the one that wasn’t changing no matter how stern I got or how many bribes I offered. Mary’s dainty little body inhaling and exhaling, her warm and delicate breath on my face, began to lull me into a state of relaxation. I now look forward to our naptime, or at least I don’t resent it and that is kind of like being thankful, so it counts.
My Husband’s Long Work Commute:
Oh boy, this is going to be challenging.
I knew that when we left the city and yet Troy’s job didn’t, a major downside to our otherwise lovely life in small town America would be the twelve-and-a-half hour work days Troy would have to put in due to a really long train ride in and out of Chicago. What this has meant for me is that at 5:30 pm, when I naturally start shutting down, he isn’t there the way he used to be to tend to the kids while I finish making dinner. He isn’t there at 6:30 pm to start the bedtime routine while I clean up. He can’t come home if I feel sick, can’t go in a little later if I’m particularly exhausted and unfortunately, there’s very little “us” time in the evenings. And now I need to interject a moment to tell all of you single mothers or mothers with husbands in the military gone for weeks and months at a time, that in my eyes you’re akin to cape sporting, high-flying, super heroes and just knowing you’re out there raising your children all on your own makes me actually feel very sheepish about my bellyaching.
But thankfulness, back to thankfulness. I am thankful for the minutes that come after my declaration of: I simply cannot do this anymore! Because it turns out that when you have to go on, despite the fear, loneliness and weariness, despite what looks and tastes and smells like insurmountable obstacles in your path, by God’s grace, you somehow do. And though our methods for staying afloat may not be pretty or ideal (i.e. Elmo or pancakes –again- for dinner), the fact that you made it through to other side of those baths, that tantrum, that never ending, teeth- clenching afternoon means that you and I are more resilient than we ever imagined we could be. It means that yes, yes we can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).
The High Price of Food, Clothing and Technological Gadgets:
So I was standing in the middle of Aldi not too long ago holding a calculator and a shopping list. Things were tight, the refrigerator was empty, and payday was another week away. I’d brought cash so as not to overspend, as is easy to do with credit cards. What I had was what I had. Period. I began with my staples– milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables. From there I had to separate my actual needs from my perceived ones, which, it turns out, were merely “wants” masquerading as things we absolutely, positively, cannot live without. I pared down that original list, more than once, by the time I got to the check-out line. I left the store with a dollar in change and an unexpected sense of fulfillment at having successfully avoided the costly trappings of impulse buys and convenience foods. By thinking twice, I had beaten a system based on knee-jerk decision-making and an “enjoy it now, pay for it later” mentality.
See, here is the thing (the thing I’m trying to explain to our kids who swear backwards and forwards to me that if they only had that one special item, they’d be satisfied forever): having stuff is addicting. I know this because, say, I get a dress – automatically, I want shoes to go with it. New pillows for my couch – I’ll want a throw rug. What’s cable without a DVR? What good’s a cell phone without Internet access? A new winter hat? What about gloves, a scarf – heck, a better quality coat? A-h-h-h! Somebody stop me! Oh wait…I can’t afford any of those things, not when my children need to eat and stay warm and become educated. By not having the minimal funds necessary to even begin competing in the game, I am totally disqualified from playing. So, once again, I am oddly thankful, thankful for the financial limitations that, for now, are protecting me from getting caught up in a rat race I’m not yet disciplined enough to simply stroll through without getting trampled.
And then there’s the engine light that’s gone on in our minivan and the mysterious leak in our attic. What about $3.00 ATM fees or all that spam in my e-mail inbox? Maybe next year, I’ll have matured enough to find their silver lining. After all, it is a process, the changing of one’s mindset from superficial to eternal, one I’ll struggle to undergo throughout the rest of my life. But here’s the good news: God is patient. He understands how hard it is to stay spiritually alert what with all that distracting noise and, what the younger generations like to refer to as, “bling” up in our faces. Thus His gifts of the holy Church, the holy sacraments and the Holy Spirit, to help us stay focused. ‘Tis the season, as they say, for remembering our great fortune at having access to Christ’s goodness and mercy in even the most difficult and trying of circumstances. I wish for you and for me, an extended spirit of gratitude made more palpable by our hope and acts of kindness.
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