Thanksgiving. It’s a practice.

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

*******

Have you noticed it? The holidays are starting earlier and earlier. Now it’s no longer Black Friday. The entire month of November is dedicated to shopping. Christmas decorations have been up since the day after Halloween and holiday music is filling the airwaves.

Ah. The holidays. They stir much up in us, don’t they?

And it is Thanksgiving. Already. Despite the blare of commercialism, Turkey Day always sneaks up on me. As do those meetings in life where I am sent. That’s right. Sent.

Each morning I ask the Divine to lead me where I can be of service. It’s not about me, by any stretch. But about being open and present. Listening. I’m still learning how to do this. It’s a practice.

women-huggingSo today I ran into a neighbor. She’s been having a rough time of it since her husband died. She’s moving, plowing her way out of boxes and memories, and she’s still grieving. She doesn’t know how she’ll get through Thanksgiving. I opened my heart. I listened. I hugged her.

I bumped into another woman I know. She’s elderly and when I asked about her plans for Thanksgiving, she said she would be alone. I asked if I could bring her some food, visit with her. She said she had food and would be fine. Should I have pushed harder? The thought of her having no one on this holiday wrenched my spirit. I may still bring her some pie and leave it at her door.

These not-so-by-chance encounters (arranged by a Higher Power) led me to thinking that I am very blessed. But to be honest, it hasn’t felt that way. It’s been a more-than crap year for me. I fell and busted out my front teeth. Then I got ill. I’m still not 100 percent. Because of all this, I haven’t been able to care for dad as I once did.

The women I bumped into are having crap years, too. This isn’t about comparison, about whose suffering is greater than another’s, but about how life can often take away our breath, waylay us with pain, death, loneliness or whatever it is. How we are all in this thing called “being human” together.

arms openDespite hardships, however, we can still find some inkling of gratitude in it all. Through my various health challenges, I had to keep reminding myself, “I have much to be thankful for. I am so blessed.” I didn’t break any bones. I have food and shelter, family and friends. I can breathe. Move.

Indeed, being thankful takes practice. Moment by moment. As one of my favorite authors Sue Monk Kidd writes:

“To internalize something requires practice—doing something over and over again until what was once foreign and difficult has become easier and more natural—second nature.”

Sue Monk-Kidd goes on to say:

“Gratitude is a virtue … it is about how we perceive and how we think about what we encounter. Seeing … that even though we might not have everything we want or the best of everything, what we do have is more than many people elsewhere have, that it is enough, and that what we do have is something that we can and ought to be grateful for if we appreciate it and get beyond our constant craving.”

So on Thanksgiving, I am thinking about my neighbor who lost her husband, the woman who will eat alone, all refugees displaced because of wars or natural disasters, those who are struggling without enough food or warmth or family. I am remembering them to the Divine and thankful for what I do have. And asking, how can I serve or help those who are hurting … in my own corner of the world?

Once I am fully mended, I am going to pursue that in earnest. I can’t give from an empty cup. But in truth, I know each time I am thankful — and of service — I am filling that cup.

sun in handsSo, yes, we have one official day of Thanksgiving. It’s a start. But it’s so much better to be thankful every day and every moment, where we focus on our blessings, all the while mindful that life is uncertain and we are all fragile.

And while the holidays seem to encroach on us earlier and earlier, perhaps we can use that time to gain a healthier perspective.

” … whenever we look at what we have and who we have as if for the last time—when we see people as fragile, imperfect, impermanent, hurt, struggling, and riding on a common train—then we have perspective,” Sue Monk Kidd writes.

So, yes, it’s all about perspective. And practice. The women I met today gave me both. And I am thankful.

 

 

Your one wild and precious life

I stopped at the Dollar General Store the other day and Clara was behind the counter.

I love Clara. She only works part-time but she always seems to be there when I show up and over the years we’ve developed a friendship. She’s 85, spry and wiry, always smiling and has positive words for everyone.

How does she do this at her age, I often ask myself. And she’s happy at it, too.

I sometimes joke with her: “I want to be you when I grow up.” She laughs it off and keeps talking about her grandkids or how she’ll have tomorrow off as she rings up my laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid.

So it got me to thinking about that old axiom that our parents, an aunt or neighbor asked us when we were kids: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

lion-tamerMy goals weren’t lofty at six or seven. I thought a ballerina might be fun. Then the idea of a tightrope walker seemed thrilling. From there it was a short trip to lion tamer and clown. I look back with amazement at how anything seemed possible at that age, along with the idea of being able to do it.

What we want to be when we “grow up,” I believe, is related to a deeper question: What is our purpose? Our calling?

I think we all want to use our talents or gifts in some way. Our souls are hard-wired to want to better the planet and ourselves and leave behind something meaningful.

But most times, the reality of being a grown up doesn’t allow that. We take jobs we don’t like because we have to pay the bills. We are stuck in cubicles or in endless meetings asking ourselves, like the old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”

I was fortunate to use the gift of writing to support myself. Barely. But I did. It’s been my career over the decades. Still, that’s never felt like my true purpose.

So what is it I’m seeking — what we all yearn for?

woman by door at oceanWriter Elizabeth Gilbert has some brilliant things to say about all this, separating what we do into these categories:

JOB: A job is vital, she writes, but don’t make it YOUR LIFE. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a job — a very important and also not-at-all important thing. “We need a job to pay the bills. But a job doesn’t have to define who we are,” she says. So, I could have had a job as a lion tamer, and if I had excelled at it over the years then I might have made it my ….

CAREER: A job is just a task that you do for money, Gilbert writes. But a career is something that you build over the years with energy, passion, and commitment. Um, no. Lion taming did not call me, which leads to ….

VOCATION: The word “vocation” comes to us from the Latin verb “vocare” — meaning “to call”. Your vocation is your calling. Gilbert writes: “Your vocation is a summons that comes directly from the universe, and is communicated through the yearnings of your soul.

“While your career is about a relationship between you and the world, your vocation is about the relationship between you and God. Vocation is a private vow. Your career is dependent upon other people, but your vocation belongs only to you.”

Writing and creativity have always called me. Sometimes it’s been work and just a job. Over a lifetime it’s been a career. But my calling?

I’m still scratching beneath the surface of my life — even at this age — and asking what tugs at my soul. I ask how I can best use the gifts I’ve been given to serve. And the truth is, I don’t know. Other than writing, are there other talents waiting to be claimed?

I do know this, however — as writer Wayne Dyer has said — I don’t want to die with my music still in me.

Then again, perhaps I’m making it too complicated. After all, look at Clara. She’s content in the moment with her job as a cashier. She doesn’t ask about her purpose in life.

WOMEN HEARTWhen she was a child and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, I’m almost sure she didn’t say “cashier.” But it’s her job. It gives her spending money. Her family, most likely, has been her career.

Her calling, however, is being present to those who stand on the other side of the counter. Her vocation is bringing joy and love to the space she inhabits.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s what we are all called to do. Whether we’re a cashier, taming a lion or writing — our ultimate calling is to be love. To be in the moment and pay attention, as Mary Oliver writes so gracefully in The Summer Day.

Whatever we choose to do with our one, wild and precious life, let us do it with love. This, I believe, is our ultimate work, today, when we grow up … and forever.

 *******

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Scavenger of memories

I buy the dead woman’s earrings.

They are silver with dangling beads. They look like they’ve never been worn and are a bargain at five dollars. There are other deals here as I wander from room to room — an antique cherry desk, a Tarkay painting, two enormous Chinese vases.

I am an intruder. A voyeur in the midst of lives that breathed here, ate here, made love here. It feels unholy. And yet, this is the reality of this estate sale, as others straggle in the front door.

I haven’t been to an estate sale in years. I don’t know what draws me to this one. Perhaps it is the ad in the paper about the Tarkay painting. Perhaps a mini-adventure and reprieve from weeks of being closeted inside due to my recent fall. Perhaps the beauty of the drive itself on winding roads flanked with thick woods of blazing trees.

estate-saleThe house sits back from the road. Behind it, ample green grounds slope to a barn. It was once a horse farm. Inside, the rooms are spacious but look pillaged, with stacks of bric-a-brac, books, dishes filling corners and overflowing atop furniture.

A dining room table and chairs sit as silent testimony to holiday dinners, times of celebration with family, or perhaps evening meals eaten in a hurry or in silence. Spacious windows look out onto a patio overgrown with weeds and an abandoned swimming pool.

I touch a stack of quilts, pick up a decorative plate made in Turkey, then head upstairs. Now it becomes intimate. Here is the bedroom, her clothes still lined in the closet. She was small, a size eight. Her clothes were fashionable. Where did she go in these, I wonder? Plays? Fancy dinners?

In the other room, his shirts and sweaters hang neatly. He was large. They both bought quality, garb that speaks of those who knew the meaning of classic style, of things that last.

I stop in the hallway to breathe. I wonder — who were they? What happened? Did they have children or family? Did they know someday their lives would come to this, to strangers traipsing through their house, perusing their most personal items?

*****

old-barn-in-shady-valley-by-George-Wesley-Bellows-133Years ago I was visiting in Tennessee and drove past the house my grandfather built. I spent my summers there. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door, explaining to the woman who answered my history with the house. Could I come in?

She was gracious and invited me inside. Memories flooded like waves into my heart.

The kitchen where my grandmother made biscuits from scratch, her hands dusted with flour as she cut circles into the dough with the top of a drinking glass; the dining room where we ate fried okra and pork chops; the corner of the living room where my grandfather sat in his rocker and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

The upstairs had been renovated but I remembered the sloped roof, how I loved the sound of summer rain beating down on it, how I would curl up under my grandmother’s homemade quilts with a book. I remembered her sewing machine in the corner and how she stitched skirts and dresses for me to take back home to Texas.

The house was still there. But I had left it long ago. Only the memories remained.

***

I head outside now and walk the graveled drive to the barn. Tools, saddles and bridles. What happened to the horses, I wonder? Did they have a financial crisis and have to sell it all?

The people who called this home — they must have thought as most of us do that their lives here would continue forever. That buying fine clothes, Chinese vases and a Tarky painting were important. And maybe at the time, they were.

But now, the people who lived here are gone. And none of this matters. None of it. And we have come here this autumn day, scavengers at this estate sale, picking through their memories and souls, to the lives they left behind.

I turn around and walk back to my car. I don’t belong here. The truth is, none of us do. We can enjoy what we have worked for, what we are given. But we can hold on to nothing. We are simply passing through. We have memories. Those remain.

fall-trees-autumn-golden-sunlight-leaves-on-pathI look in my rear-view mirror and put on the earrings. I whisper a prayer for the woman who bought them in the hope of one day wearing them, but never did. I pray she and her husband had good lives. That they laughed and danced. That they loved well.

In the end, nothing really lasts but the love we share with one another. I pray they did that.

And I pray I can be loving as well, that I can learn to let go, knowing that the present moment is all that I — or any of us — really have.

I look again in the mirror, and smile, the light glinting off the beads dangling from my ears. I drive back home through a shower of golden leaves.

*******

 

 

 

Don’t it always seem to go

Life can blindside us. There we are, moving along in our daily routine, and wham. Something — whatever “it” is — calls us to attention.

For me, that “something” was a traumatic fall about two months ago. It’s miraculous — as my doctor has told me — that I didn’t break any bones or end up with a concussion when I hit that cement sidewalk. I’m in walk-feet-2forever gratitude for angels around me when I pitched head first.

But my teeth took the brunt of it, dislodging them and shoving them into my fractured jawbone.

Blood spewed everywhere and a kind lady saw me fall and took me into her home to help me clean up. I ended up in the ER that night with a CT Scan and being assessed and probed. Ironically, I knew the ER doctor from all my past visits with dad, who had a stroke three years ago.

The human part of me immediately kicked into “why” — that nasty question we ask about much of life.

When the shock and trauma of it all subsided, I realized that “why” was a waste of energy and time. It was a “victim” question and I didn’t like that. I decided, hey, it happened And now I was left with how I wanted to respond to the experience.

So how did I respond? Afterwards, not well. I wept, I was angry and I railed to the heavens that THIS could not be happening, not now. I wanted to write my second book. But had I really been doing that? I needed to continue to help care for dad. But really, now, didn’t I need a respite of some kind?

And then, I watched as self-blame kicked in. How could I have been so stupid, so unaware as to allow this to happen?

woman-floating-paperworkI’d process all those questions later. But right after the accident, I was still in shock, or some kind of post-traumatic stress, my body banged up and sore. I fell into periods of the deepest sleep I’ve ever known. So comatose, in fact, those sleeps frightened me.

But I decided to allow it all. I may not have liked it, but I knew on some level that I had to give permission for all this to unfold. I couldn’t — and still can’t — eat solid food. (Silver lining here: I’ve lost a lot of weight that needed to go.) And I needed tremendous amounts of bedrest. No more go-go-go. No more to-do lists.

Just being. Just resting. Just deep listening and deep sleeps.

I’ve had a good amount of dental work done at this point.  There’s much more ahead. And I’m thankful that some of my stamina has returned.

But here’s what I’m most thankful for, believe it or not.

Taking a shower. Cooking a meal, even if it is soup or mashed potatoes. Driving to the grocery store. Dusting and vacuuming. Crazy, right? No. Those simple things I once took for granted, that were part of an ordinary day — now I see them as gifts.

Here’s the point, my friends. We are given lives that, in the main, are routine. We wake, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth, we go to work. Or we stay home and care for a family. Or we pay bills, call a friend, clean the house, prepare dinner, help the kids with homework.

dishes-2-620These very simple, simple things in life are gifts. Blessings. To NOT be able to do them for what has seemed such a long period of time — and now to be able to do them — is a gift beyond telling.

The fall, yes, was a huge wake-up call on many levels. And I know those lessons will be sifting through my soul for some time to come. For now, one major lesson is that time is limited and we never know what might happen. So, yes, I do want to write that book, many books. And yes, I need to learn to better balance caregiving my dad with my own self-care.

But I don’t want to overthink or analyze all this. I just want to continue to “be” with whatever this experience needs to be — in the moment.

And in the moment, I can say that this challenge fills me with boundless gratitude. I am aware now of the smallest of blessings. To breathe. To move. To laugh and cry.

holdingspaceforyourselffeatureAnd even though I have always been somewhat mindful of those who have chronic health problems, those who are shut in, those who are fleeing their countries and have so little — now I am almost painfully attentive to how much I do have, how so many people in the world would cherish those things I once complained about or took for granted.

In the end, life in all its spectrum will be with us — from dazzling joy to crippling sorrow to somewhere in between. Can we learn to accept it all, to learn and grow through it all, to be kind to ourselves and not judge the experience or fall into self-blame (as I am still learning)?

As I continue to mend, I find that I am in the moment as never before, savoring the crimson and gold leaves of autumn, the crisp cool morning air, the dishes in the sink, a hot shower, a warm bed, the neighbor who stops me to talk even though I am tired, the gift of a deep breath in and a deep breath out.

Gift and grace. And so much more. As Joni sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

Let’s be here now. Thankful, now.