Gratitude Works In The ER

The practice of gratitude isn’t large enough if we’re only grateful only when things are going well.  I’ve written before about appreciating our doubts, mistakes, even our crises.  Trying to see difficulty as another blessing helps get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life.

It’s also not easy.

That concept became more evident to me when I ended up in the ER a few months ago. How I got there is a story for another time, since this tale takes place entirely in an MRI machine. Such machines are a nightmare for someone as claustrophobic as I am. Heck, I even avoid being the first person to slide in a six-person restaurant booth because two people between me and open space is too much. Unfortunately, patients experiencing any kind of neurological emergency* can’t receive medication to reduce MRI-related anxiety. The test was necessary to diagnose what was going wrong and it had to be done immediately. 

A doctor, nurse, and several other people stayed in the room with me as I was loaded into the narrow tube. I willed myself to be calm. Electronic beeping and buzzing, whirling and whacking started. It sounded quite a bit like the machine was falling apart. 

“You have to lie completely still,” I was told. I thought I was lying still.

I was cold. I was in pain. I felt trapped in that tight space, even more trapped because my head and neck were locked in a “cage” clamped to the bed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I’d already been told I might be having brain surgery after the MRI.

I prayed silently, but my whole body trembled. I asked my beloved deceased parents to be with me, the trembling continued. I tried affirmations, which seemed to make the trembling even worse. I was cautioned that the test might have to be repeated if I couldn’t stay entirely still. I couldn’t imagine going through it again, nor how I could do any better. 

Then I considered this might be my last day. What did I want from it? To appreciate every moment I had left. I began bringing to mind all I was grateful for, starting right there. I thought of the care I was getting and the wisdom of the people in that room. I realized how fortunate I was to be getting this help. My body started to soften into the experience. I pictured the faces of my loved ones in turn. It seemed as if they were right there too. By the time I decided to picture autumn trees, blue skies, and singing birds the cage was being unlocked from my face. 

Gratitude definitely isn’t a switch to turn on only when things go well. It’s a light that shines in darkness too.

 

*I’m going to be okay.

Stop, Reboot

Bad Start

to the day, what with finding

feathers, then bodies

of two hens killed by hawks.

And power out, so I can’t

work despite glaring deadlines.

 

Picking tomatoes and chard

for breakfast, I step on a bee

whose final act is to heave

her brave sword in my sole.

Startled, I skid on dew-wet grass,

fall sharply, my face whirling

a breath’s distance from roses

prickled with scarifying thorns,

 

and laugh.

 

I’d been soggy

cereal in the bowl,

mail dropped in a ditch,

a garden wizened by blight,

 

but now,

foot in lap, I pinch

out the stinger,

stabbed by gratitude

for an insect’s

venomous antidote.

Now all I see is a shining

curtain of light pulled open

to the third act of a comedy

performed as it

is lived.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Gyroscope Review  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Spinning Straw Into Gold

laughing at adversity, it's all good,

Anne Anderson Wikimedia Commons

Annoyances seem to come with lessons built in, at least around here.

I trundle down the basement steps clutching piles of wet jeans so I can hang them close to our wood burning furnace, saving a bit of propane our clothes dryer might have used.  That seems like a farce when we discover a fitting on the propane tank has been leaking, letting hundreds of dollars worth of gas drift away in an ecologically irresponsible manner.

We have fresh milk, butter, and cheese thanks to our cow Isabelle. We avoid calculating if we’re actually saving money this way, but it’s obvious when it costs us. Like now, when we couldn’t harvest a single bale of hay last summer due to flooded fields. These days we have to buy each mouthful of hay she eats in exchange for the food she provides us.

What I can’t grow and preserve myself, I like to get in bulk from a natural foods co-op. It helps us afford organic food. But not when I find grain moths in my 25 pound container of buckwheat groats. Guess the chickens get buckwheat added to their diets and my kids won’t have to complain about pancakes the color of wet cardboard.

Sometimes I’m tempted to indulge in a Rumpelstiltskin-like tantrum. I don’t want to hear about the money we need to fix a tractor. I don’t want to clean a pile of dog puke or stay up late to meet another deadline or deal with unspeakably stinky laundry. I’d like the straw of everyday annoyances to turn into gold.

But then I pay attention.

Right now two of my sons are sitting by the fireplace talking and laughing with their father. My daughter is coming in from the barn, snow melting on her hair and on the bucket of eggs she’s carrying. The small dogs are wrestling at my feet while our old German shepherd rolls over to avoid watching such unruliness. It’s all perfect — exactly as it is. My socks still have holes, the window molding is unfinished, there are muddy footprints by the door. But none of that matters.

This is golden.

A 2012 throwback post from our farm site

Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments

when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilde

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

  1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person
  2. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

but the character by that name, in the 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter (and in the 1960 movie version), is far wiser than this.

Pollyanna was the daughter of an idealistic missionary who, in his dying days, taught his daughter the “glad game.”  The game is simple. In a situation that seems unpleasant, even dire, find a reason to feel glad. It’s a courageous way to face overwhelming circumstances.

Pollyanna certainly faced tragedies. She lived in poverty with her parents and relied on the mercy of donated goods. When her parents died, Pollyanna was sent to live with her wealthy, disapproving aunt. The aunt decided her niece should reside in the stifling attic rather than be allowed to use any of the comfortable bedrooms that were available. When the girl opened an attic window to find relief from the unrelenting heat she was punished. But Pollyanna shared the glad game with anyone willing to listen. She explained to her aunt’s servant, Nancy, how her father started the game back when she’d hoped to find a doll in the missionary barrel.

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

“CRUTCHES!”

“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ‘em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that’s when we began it….The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”

“Well, goodness me! I can’t see anythin’ ter be glad about—getting’ a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn’t see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with a quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”

“Well, then suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—‘EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly.

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

Being mindful of what we’re grateful for helps us pay closer attention to what’s beautiful and meaningful in our daily lives. There’s peace to be found in ripples of rain on a puddle, a neighbor’s smile, birdsong,  the smell of coffee brewing, a child’s hug.

According to research, the practice of writing a daily gratitude list boosts our sense of well-being and gives us a brighter outlook on life while also increasing our pro-social behaviors. An attitude of gratitude makes for happier kids and more satisfying relationships. Gratitude is correlated with more empathy, greater generosity, and less materialistic attitudes. It also helps us handle stress better, sleep better, reduces inflammation, and benefits our hearts.

The power of gratitude is so vast that it persists over time. One study asked participants to write down three things that went well each day, along with what caused them to go well, for one full week. They were only two percent happier that week, but follow-up tests showed their happiness continued to increase for six months afterwards. Symptoms of depression decreased even more, declining by 28 percent in that week and continuing to improve slightly over the next six months.

Even when going through overwhelming difficulties, being mindful of our blessings can retrain our brains to be more positive. Gratitude causes the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters related to pleasure and balanced mood. Focusing on appreciation tunes our minds to feel appreciative more often. As neuroscientist Alex Korb writes in The Upward Spiral

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Unlike Pollyanna, we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore our difficulties. Research shows that consciously recognizing and naming our negative feelings actually lessens their impact on us, reducing our emotional reactivity to worry, fear, and despair. And there’s power in letting others know they’ve had a negative effect on us, even after significant time has passed.

Before things got better for Pollyanna, they got worse. A car accident left her in need of those very crutches and even her glad game didn’t save her from despair. But by then, her kindly ways had earned love from many people and the love they returned made the difference.

This week I am grateful beyond words. My oldest son had emergency brain surgery last week and after five days in ICU his prognosis is excellent. I’m grateful to live in a time and place when saving him is possible; grateful for skilled and caring medical people at Medina Hospital and Fairview Hospital; grateful for so many wonderful people offering their love, prayers, and help. Every single thing in our lives takes on a sort of luminous glow through the lens of gratitude.  As the mystic Meister Eckhart said back in the 13th century, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that would suffice.”

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

Originally published in Lilipoh.

Make a List of Non-Resolutions

no resolutions, non-resolutions, no New Year's resolutions,

image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.

Listen.

Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.

Play!

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

act of Christmas kindness, heartwarming Christmas, poor helping poor on Christmas, lesson of giving,

Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Leaving Little Love Letters

mother's love notes,

Image: Ebineyland

My mother regularly wrote little love letters to her children.  They started appearing on our pillows when we could first read, at least one every month or so. Sometimes her notes would reference something we did or said but mostly they simply gushed with affirmation. Her standard ran along the lines of, “You are the nicest, most wonderful seven-year-old in the whole world.”

Her one or two sentence notes were usually written on a scrap of paper. My mother made “scratch” paper out of junk mail and school fliers. She tore paper on the fold lines, getting three pieces out of a standard letter-sized sheet. This made the flip side of her little love letters unintentionally quirky, with references to bank policy or reminders about choir practice. My brother and sister got their own notes but we never mentioned them to each other. They were a private and cherished connection between mother and child.

By the time I was nine or ten years old I wrote little love letters to her too, hiding my notes in her shoe or tucked into her jewelry box. It was easy to tell when she’d found one. She’d dole out a big hug and whisper a line I’d written back to me.  It seems these notes meant as much to her as they did to me. After she died I ran across some of them stuffed into her favorite cookbook, effusive words penciled in my best handwriting.

I know all too well that family life sometimes scrapes us like sandpaper against those closest to us. We don’t talk enough about what amuses or delights us because we’re busy saying that the towels aren’t hung up, shoes are blocking the door, and food is left out on the counter. We may also be dealing with doubts kindled by worry and annoyances that can spark into anger.

Sure, we linger over tender moments that we wish could last forever. We praise the effort (as all those relationship experts tell us to do). But there’s something special when we take the time to write down our very best feelings for one another.  A note is a tangible expression unlike any other.

I won’t kid myself that I’ll ever write as many tiny love letters as my mother wrote in her life. But today I’ll be writing a few sentences to my loved ones and hiding those notes where they’ll find them. I know there’s a sense of completion when we say what’s in our hearts.