I’m not questioning their gratitude.
I too am thankful for those gifts.
I’m also thankful for hot showers, coffee, the internet, my car’s heated seats, wine, Netflix and a husband who sends me roses when he knows he’s made me mad. And I’m not going to feel selfish for saying so.
There is, after all, something to be said for heartfelt thanks, such as that expressed by my fourth grade classmates in November 1976.
In those days before word processing, personal computers and printers, my teacher typed her students’ responses to the question “What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?” Later, she gave each of us a mimeographed copy of our responses.
In reviewing the gratitude in that booklet, I am completely in awe of the wisdom of a group of fourth grade students in a rural community in 1976.
We knew to be thankful for our bicycles and birthdays and toys.
We knew to be thankful for teachers and doctors and friends.
Reading the words of a group of children who are now middle-aged adults marked by the scars of experience, I can’t help but smile and recognize something else for which I am extremely grateful.
That’s not to say that I don’t feel strongly about specific issues or specific politicians or that I don’t take my role as a citizen and my right to vote seriously. I do.
But years ago I realized that too many people consider politics to be a game of Monopoly in which the political party, the politician, the political action committee or the corporation are more concerned about securing as much for themselves as possible than they are about anyone else. They seem to believe that a roll of the dice is a fair way to determine the success and/or comfort of an individual or family.
Sometimes, they spout a few words intended to convince people they care about those who aren’t as fortunate or as wealthy or as beautiful, but their words often aren’t consistent with their behavior, lifestyle or relationships.
As someone who received a great roll of the dice on the day I was born and encounter people everyday who didn’t get such a great roll, I can see right through their facade.
And just when I feel as though I’m becoming completely cynical, I encounter individuals who step into politics because they truly care about others.
My friend Layne Diehl is one of those people.
Layne never thought she could go to college, but through the support of people who cared about her, she not only went to college but also to law school. She is a true role model for young women whose roll of the dice doesn’t afford them the security of knowing they can go to college.
Layne didn’t grow up in a family that was always safe and secure. She learned to survive and thrive because she had a mother who garnered all of her strength, skills and resources to take care of her children when the world around her family was collapsing. Layne’s mom passed those skills onto her daughter, who understands the importance of reaching out to help others who were never given the opportunity to roll the dice.
Layne has a strong sense of purpose and self. When she realized that her personal values no longer fit with her career, she took a chance and decided to roll her own dice instead. In doing so, she found a path that fits with both her values and to give back to the community.
I wouldn’t know any of this information if Layne weren’t my friend. That’s because Layne, who is running for the WV House of Delegates, isn’t making her campaign about her.
When Layne took the risk of running for the House of Delegates, she didn’t do it so she could build her resume or her ego. She did it because she truly cares about others and understands the impact legislative issues can have on the lives of the small business owner, the single parent family, the working poor and the economy of small communities.
During her campaign, Layne never said a negative word about her opponent nor allowed anyone else to do so (even when her opponent was garnering national attention as a teenage candidate). Instead, Layne chose to praise her opponent for inspiring other young people to get involved then focused on real issues affecting real people.
Layne didn’t pander to people who want elections to be about one or two issues. Instead, she adopted a platform that speaks to those who see beyond party lines to the complexity of issues.
I do have one complaint about Layne’s campaign. I can t vote for her because I don’t live in her district.
All I can do is publicly express my support and let others know how much I appreciate that she wants to improve the odds for everyone.
I had no concept of all the mean and completely self-centered people I would someday not only deal with on a regular basis but also come to accept. I would have thought I was too strong-willed and strong-minded to tolerate such people.
But a few years ago, I wouldn’t have recognized that, sometimes, being tolerant is not only the best way to deal with most difficult people, it is also a great learning experience.
That’s not to say I’ll ever accept bad or abusive behavior, but it does mean that one of the benefits of getting older is gaining perspective. And perspective has taught me that difficult people have done more to teach me about how to live my life than many of the kind and giving people I also encounter on a daily basis.
Difficult people have taught me that paying attention and listening to others is much more important than ensuring others listen to me.
Difficult people have taught me that a rude word will always being louder than a compliment that is shouted to the world.
Difficult people have taught me that being concerned with who gets credit for good deeds or successes tarnishes all that has been accomplished.
Difficult people have taught me that spreading lies and half-truths may garner immediate attention but will ultimately lead to a lack of credibility.
Difficult people have taught me that belittling, attempting to control or asserting power over others actually renders a person weak in the eyes of others.
And difficult people have taught me that refusal to adopt others’ ideas or accept constructive criticism stunts growth and limits possibilities.
I would be lying if I said difficult people no longer bother me or manage to get under skin. They do.
But I do find that the older I get, the less time and emotional energy I waste wishing I could change difficult people and the more time and energy I spend contemplating how to best apply their lessons to my own life.
My stand-off with a red fox across a small meadow should have been the highlight of my evening bike ride, but it wasn’t.
My highlight was holding a walnut that had fallen from a tree onto a road. I picked it up after my encounter with the fox.
The fox stood very still in his tracks as I walked my bike a few feet closer to get a better look at the beautiful animal. I got my opportunity as he inspected me just as I inspected him. He then decided he didn’t like what it saw and turned to trot into the woods.
I got back on my bike and pedaled a few more miles when my tire hit something and skidded a bit. I stopped to determine what had almost caused my accident.
It was a round walnut still in its green husk.
A walnut tree provided shade over the house where I lived as a child so young that my memories are scattered and limited. I remember spending a great deal of time in the yard with the tree, a wood fence that was built by horizontal, rather than vertical, pieces of wood and a picnic table.
I would sit under that tree pulling apart walnut husks to reveal the nuts buried beneath while I waited for my father to make his short walk home from his office building.
Years later, I learned that my mother had completely different memories of that time. She dreaded the walnuts falling as they were not gems to be uncovered, as my brother and I thought, but were instead dirty objects that left stains upon whomever and whatever touched them. I don’t remember the stains at all.
What I do remember is the beautiful antique furniture in our home that my parents said was made of walnut.
I also remember that my parents had an annual holiday tradition of offering an unending supply of nuts, still in their shells, with a nutcracker. That bowl always contained walnuts.
Those walnuts bore little resemblance to the black ones that had left my hands caked in a dirt and grime, but they did serve as a reminder.
Sometimes we have to look beyond what we initially observe – the inconvenience and messiness that most people carry with them – to discover all they have to offer. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come when we permit ourselves to take on situations that require us to get our hands dirty. And almost all of the time, people and situations aren’t all good or all bad but simply an untidy mix of both.
Our responsibility as people is to train ourselves to always look for the good.
Only yesterday, the crocus were starting to poke their heads through the frozen dirt, and now summer is quickly fading as autumn once again prepares for its annual debut.
I realized that the awkward stage between seasons had arrived as I was pedaling my bike the other evening.
Only a few weeks before, I had been watching the sun rise on my daily bike rides.
Now, the sun is rising later each day and making an earlier and earlier farewell, so I am riding in the evenings instead of the mornings.
As I do, I’m observing the days are getting shorter and shorter but the leaves aren’t yet changing and the temperatures can’t decide whether I should be wearing flip-flops or boots.
We are officially at that “in-between stage.” And I am grateful.
A few years ago, I would probably have tried holding on to what was slipping away while reaching out to what was just beyond my grasp on the horizon. In doing so, I would have lost the beauty and purpose of “in between.”
Now I appreciate it.
“In between” isn’t about wasting energy on mistakes or worrying about future decisions. Instead it is about accepting who we are and encouraging ourselves to do better.
“In between” isn’t about regretting all that we missed but is about appreciating all that currently surrounds us.
And ” in between” isn’t about hoping that the future holds more than the past. “In between” is about appreciating the present moment for exactly what it is.
“In between” is about recognizing the joy and potential in every minute regardless of our age, expectations or previous losses.
“In between” is about learning to appreciate the gift of the present while accepting that we can’t always control our current circumstances or our future.
And,most importantly, ” in between” is about paying attention to what others might dismiss as mundane but is actually miraculous.
Here is to “in between.”
Despite the tears and hugs and prayers about several painful situations, hope was in plentiful supply while despair was being left behind.
I was so struck by this not because we were being unrealistic but because we were being completely realistic. No one was hiding from the truth. We recognized that there are no scales of justice in real life: bad things happen to good people, relationships sometimes crumble, illness doesn’t pick victims based on age or virtues and people with large egos sometimes prevail.
But we also knew that attempting to make sense of this imbalance only results in one thing: wasted time. So instead, we chose to simply acknowledge life’s imperfections while spending our energy enjoying what we could.
That’s when I realized that happiness is not something that exists only where sadness, frustration and anger don’t.
Instead, happiness exists despite them and right alongside them, and it doesn’t require an absolutely perfect moment.
It jumps into your lap while you are feeling lost amid hundreds of other students at an elementary school assembly when one of the performers walks off the stage and asks you to dance.
It reassures you when you skip classes during your senior year of college to hang out at a lake with friends because you know you only have days left before you will go your separate ways. Despite the fear of leaving the safety of a college cocoon and being forced to test your wings, you know you are enjoying a fleeting moment that will quickly become a treasured memory.
It stays with you when a few people are saying unfair and untrue things about you yet even more people surround you with their love and support.
And it embraces you at a funeral service when you laugh at a funny story about someone you loved but who can no longer share your amusement.
I would never attempt to define happiness anymore than I would attempt to define love. But I know I can see it in every memory I have. Sometimes it is silent and sometimes it is loud. But it is always there and, even more importantly, I know it will always be in the memories I have yet to make.
We don’t have to worry about making an impression or searching in vain for something we have in common. We simply accept the fact that connecting with another human, even for just a few minutes, will always be more meaningful than comparing a long list of accomplishments, the size of our house or our connections with what we deem powerful people.
I was reminded of this last Friday on the subway in New York City.
I was lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded train, but that seat was very, very small. My thigh was wedged up against that of the man next to me. Societal rules dictated that I ignore the contact, but apparently he didn’t abide by those rules and immediately engaged in conversation.
In a thick Hispanic accent, he asked if I lived in the city. When I told him no, he told me he didn’t he either. He had grown up in the Bronx, but he now lived in Kellogg, Michigan. He wanted to know where I do live. When I told him, he asked whether I lived near the ocean and if the winters are bad. apparently, he still hasn’t recovered from the one he experienced in Michigan.
He and his wife applauded as my daughter and her friend broke into song, and he told me that his cousin had started the children’s chorus in New York City. He gave me tips about navigating the subway system, and he shared his excitement at being back in “his city.”
At one point during our conversation, his wife urgently grabbed his arm and started speaking rapidly in Spanish.
“She wants to know if you are Polish,” he explained to me.
His wife gave me a brilliant smile, and I felt some sense of guilt asking “why?”
“Because you look like her good friend who is Polish,” he said. “Your features are the same.’
I glanced back at his wife who was still beaming and shook my head. “Not Polish,” I answered.
She nodded in understanding as the train grinded to a stop – our stop.
“Have a good life,” the man said as I stood to leave.
“You too,” I said.
That ended a generally unmemorable conversation, and I know I’ll never recognize the man if I ever see him again. He was just a random person on a train with whom I happened to share a moment in time.
Yet, ironically, I’ll never forget him because he gave me a little piece of himself to me.
He and his wife provided my daughter with an audience and applause in New York City. His wife seemed to think I must be a good person because I reminded her of a dear friend. Most importantly, the man took an interest in me not because society required that of him but because he recognized the importance of humanity. And because of that, I gave a little piece of myself to him.
I couldn’t ask for more.
He, a random stranger on a subway train, taught me how much total strangers can bring into our lives and how much sharing those encounters can bring into the lives of others. I’m looking forward to many more conversations with strangers.
10. Other than Kate Middleton and Prince William I had no idea who any of the young, beautiful people on the cover of magazines were or why I should be interested in their lives. Even more telling, I had no interest in finding out.
9. As I made faces at the cute baby in the cart in front of me, the cashier asked her mother for her i.d. to buy alcohol. When the mother proudly said she was 24, I realized I was old enough to be her mother and the baby’s grandmother.
8. I also bought a bottle if wine, but the cashier didn’t even bother to ask for my i.d. In fact, I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes when I asked if she needed to see it.
7. I wasn’t wearing makeup or contacts, and the old paint-stained t-shirt I was wearing wasn’t the least bit flattering. I didn’t care how I looked, but the 24-year-old mother in the cute sundress gave me a look of sympathy.
6. The even younger woman in pajama pants behind me in line paid no attention to me or the clothes I was wearing. I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand how wearing pajama pants was acceptable but my paint-stained shirt wasn’t.
5. I asked the cashier to do a price check.
4. I was buying raisin bran.
3. I was actually jealous that the 24-year old in front of me was buying Captain Crunch.
2. The cashier called me ma’am.
1. The bag boy warned me that a couple of my bags were really heavy and I should be careful when lifting them or I would hurt my back.
I could have left the grocery store wondering how I had become one of “those women.” Instead, I left feeling proud.
I am one of those women who has enough experience to recognize that I can’t be defined by what I wear or what I buy. Instead, I am defined by years of experience – as evidenced by the lines around my eyes. I am defined by the words I say – and more importantly the words I don’t. I am defined by how I react to life circumstances – both good and bad.
Most importantly, I am “one of those women” who realizes that the truly important moments and people in our lives are never captured on the glossy photos in magazines. Instead they are captured in the angry, sad, jealous and joyful moments that those of us who are described as “those women” can use to teach the next generation.
If that makes me feel a bit old, I’m o.k. with that. And if that means I have to tolerate being called ma’am on a regular basis, I’m o.k. with that too.
After all, “those women” understand what being called ma’am really means.