Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Putting The Great Back Into Grateful

This post is running on Patch (click here), but I'm posting it here as well.

Several years ago, I remember showing up for my tennis group on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Someone asked me how my holiday was and without missing a beat I said, “It was awful.” The woman was visibly startled by this, so I qualified it by explaining myself. “It wasn’t that the meal was charred or that anyone had expired at the dinner table,” I told her. “Thanksgiving is just hard for me.” During that moment, I realized something that’s taken me practically forever to understand: when people ask me how something was, they’re mostly just making small talk. They don’t want to know that Thanksgiving represents a lot of sadness for me and in general it’s a day I simply try to endure. If nothing cataclysmic occurred, my proper answer should be, “Great. Yours?”

I made a small promise to myself that I would try to remember this in the future. That instead of being the Queen of Too Much Information, I would answer questions like that politely, and then quickly refocus the conversation onto others.

Soon after that Thanksgiving, my life started to crumble in unexpected ways. Every time I turned around it seemed like another rug was being pulled out from under me. Things went on like this for a few months until I found myself praying not that my life would be what it had been, but simply that I would finally hit the bottom. We all go through periods like this, where, although deep and lonely, we just want arrive at a place where there’s nowhere left to go but up.

I got my wish. I did hit bottom. But getting up was harder than I thought. I was out of balance in every imaginable way and just plain tired. I sought the counsel of an old friend and yoga teacher who I knew once had a similar hole to pull herself out of.

One of her suggestions to me was to get myself a pretty little notebook and to number each page, up to 40. Each day, she told me, write down a few things you’re grateful for.

At first blush, this seemed stupid and useless. I didn’t even want to get up in the morning, no less root around for things to be grateful for. It’s hard to even write that sentence, now. It not only seems so foreign, it seems so arrogant. But because my friend had been there -- to that very low place where you have to rebuild the meaning of your life -- she was able to give me some instructions that really helped. “Some days,” she said, “the only thing I honestly felt was: I am grateful for mint toothpaste. And that was all I wrote.”

That was exactly the example I needed. I needed to be shown that I could discover gratitude amywhere. And if it didn’t feel right or true to be talking about all the things I should feel grateful for, there were a million other places I could look for – or notice – my gratitude.

I’m not going to tell you that suddenly I was able to sit down and rattle off pages and pages of reasons to be grateful. It was actually hard to fill those forty sheets. But at the end, I could tell there’d been a slight shift in my perception. I was at least noticing as many good things as bad. So I got myself another notebook and started the exercise again.

By the next Thanksgiving I had a slightly better attitude. I made a big effort to keep my expectations low to try and avert disappointments. But I also made little efforts along the way to remind myself of things I love, and I tried to focus only on those things throughout the day. I started the day with exercise, even though it made food prep a little more harried. I served Brussels sprouts, even though I don’t consider them “special” – they’re one of my favorites and I eat them all the time. I listened to music while I cooked. We played Apples to Apples after our meal. It wasn’t Norman Rockwell, but it ended up being really quite fun.

I know that Thanksgiving isn’t about the meal, but about taking the time to be grateful for all that we have. But for me, that kind of backfires. It has always ended up being a day that I’ve reflected on my losses – things I once had. Things that if I still had, life would be perfect. Much better for me, is to spend a bit of time every day focusing on what I appreciate, even if it’s only how nice and thin the deli guy slices my cold cuts, or that I can finally serve a game of tennis without double-faulting. It takes a lot of pressure off of Thanksgiving for me when I live like that every day. It brings Thanksgiving back to being just a big ole meal, which is a little more manageable for me.

So that next year, when my tennis friends asked how my Thanksgiving was, I blurted out something I’d never expected would feel so true, “It was actually really great!” I said. “How was yours?”

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