The Elegance of Gratitude This Holiday Season

As we head into the most wonderful time of the year, we can’t help but recall this time last year when a pandemic put the kibosh to most of our holiday traditions and celebrations. On Thanksgiving 2020, my husband was in the kitchen preparing a feast for two, while I fretted like a turkey in November.

The Coronavirus was affecting each of our four grown children in different ways, and there was nothing I could do to help. My mother, a widow, was experiencing health problems, and I was worried about her living alone four hours away in southern Illinois. I gazed out the window and smiled at the sight of a mama fox and her baby happily trotting through the frosty woods, blissfully oblivious to the worries of the day. 

I jumped up and darted to the kitchen, licked a finger-full of mashed potatoes, and grabbed an empty jelly jar. I tied a festive red and green ribbon on it and added a tag that read, “Gratitude Jar 2020”. Then I cut dozens of small slips of paper. The plan was for my husband and me to secretly write something we were grateful for and drop it in the jar each day from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. We would read our entries together on New Year’s Eve. 

A couple of days later, my mom had a stroke. Thankfully, she recovered well, but I spent all of December with her, first from the hospital parking lot (as visitors weren’t allowed to go inside) and then in her apartment. I went back home to Indiana on New Year’s Eve to help my husband pack up our house. We had made the quick and necessary decision to sell our cabin and buy a house in our hometown so my mother could safely live with us. 

As I hastily packed box after box, I saw the Gratitude Jar sitting on the kitchen counter. To my surprise, it was filled with tiny slips of paper! I took an envelope out of my purse and added 31 more slips to the jar. Though we’d been apart and hadn’t said a word about it, both my husband and I had continued to write down things for which we were thankful. 

I’d like to say we read the entries from our Gratitude Jar at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, but we were asleep by 9:30. On New Year’s Day, we pulled each piece of paper from the jar and read it out loud.

Many of our entries expressed thanks for my mother’s recovery and for the doctors and nurses during such a difficult time. Several were about simple things in nature such as a beautiful sunrise, a bird at the feeder, or a peaceful snowfall. Some showed gratitude for our children’s resilience in facing their challenges. Others revealed our appreciation for each other. 

For most of us, 2020 is a blur filled with varying degrees of trials and tribulations. Yet through it all, there were always glimmers of hope and happiness. Never was Dr. Suess’s message in his story How the Grinch Stole Christmas so true. 

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.'”

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Before we get too caught up in the renewed holiday frenzy of decorating, shopping, and merry-making, let’s remember what 2020 taught us. Underneath all the tinsel and trimming, lies the season’s faithful and enduring gifts of beauty, peace, and love. I have already assembled our 2021 Gratitude Jar with the intention of being reminded throughout this holiday season of the simple elegance of gratitude. §

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
~ William Arthur Ward

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The Elegance of Housekeeping

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2020, women spent an average of 2.4 hours a day doing household tasks, and men spent 1.6 hours. Let’s put aside any gender issues for now, and consider the fact that most of us spend a good deal of time every day doing household chores. Is it really possible to find elegance in something as seemingly dull and mundane as housekeeping? 

Everyday elegance is all about infusing deep beauty and meaning to the simple, ordinary rituals of our lives. No matter our situation, most of us have at least some homemaking tasks to do each day. Besides the pleasure of living in a clean and tidy home, housekeeping can provide a daily rhythm, clear our minds, and fill us with gratitude. 

Our housekeeping routine can add the elegance of structure to our days. There was a time in my life when a full-time job and active children left little time for housework. Now that I’m a retired, empty-nester, I have plenty of time. In either case, I benefited from a daily housekeeping schedule. Author and pastor John C. Maxwell said, “The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” 

What does your housekeeping routine include? Do you make the bed as soon as you get up? Is the kitchen swept right after dinner? Does the bathroom get cleaned on Tuesdays? What have you decided to delegate or pay someone else to do? There’s comfort in having a predictable plan and schedule. Decades ago I taught with a delightful gentleman who told me he wound his grandfather clock every Sunday night before going to bed. It was a soothing ritual he enjoyed each week like clockwork. 

Routine housekeeping tasks can offer the elegance of mindfulness. As a college student long ago, I couldn’t settle in for a serious study session until my dorm room was spick and span. Getting my environment in order was part of my study ritual. My daughter, a successful lawyer, calls it “productive procrastination.” We both find clearing our space helps clear our minds.

In a wonderful little book called A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, a Buddhist monk shares how cleaning methods employed in Zen temples can be used “as a way to cultivate the mind.” After years of unavoidable multi-tasking, I now enjoy giving my full attention to a specific task such as cleaning a window, ironing a shirt, or filling the birdbath. It’s during this time when I often come up with my best ideas. Agatha Christie said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” 

Housework can fill us with the elegance of gratitude. Caring for our home and possessions reminds us of all we have. Furniture to polish. Clothing to launder. Dishes to wash. Trinkets to dust. Whether we live in a rented apartment, a tiny house, or a grand estate, we can be thankful for a roof over our head and a pillow to rest it on. 

We can’t overestimate the importance of home, and therefore, of home-making. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our homes, and then our homes shape us.” Rather than thinking of housework as drudgery, we can learn to view it as an opportunity to add everyday elegance to the place we call home and to the lives of the people who live and visit there. §

“When all else fails, cleaning house is the perfect antidote to most of life’s ills.” ~ Author Sue Grafton

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The Elegance of Letting Go

About this time every year, nature gently reminds us of the elegance of letting go. Colorful falling leaves release their hold and dance and twirl in the autumn wind, gracefully showing us the way.

There’s a scientific reason deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter. It’s a process called abscission. Rather than fruitlessly expend energy during the harsh winter months, trees shed their leaves to conserve resources. The process helps trees retain water and keeps them from blowing over. As a bonus, fallen leaves add replenishing nutrients to the soil. In a beautiful act of self-preservation, trees let go in order to stay healthy and alive. 

The trees’ annual decluttering process might initially inspire us to let go of a few material things ourselves. Broken things. Meaningless things. Uncomfortable things. Too many things. Perfectly wonderful things that no longer suit our season of life.

It’s no easy task to rake all our physical clutter into a big pile like so many fallen leaves. Harder still is letting go of intangible things that clutter our hearts and minds. As we watch the autumn leaves cut loose and fly, what can we let go of to help protect, replenish, and nurture the very root of our being? 

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” We convince ourselves we must tightly cling to old memories, thoughts, and behaviors, and we spend precious energy feeding them and keeping them alive. Letting them go finally frees us to rest, grow stronger, and be happier. 

If I was still teaching, I would assign us to draw a tree with falling leaves. On each leaf, we’d write something we’re ready to let go. Those little leaves would probably hold some very powerful words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt, and anger. What would you write on your leaves? 

Poet May Sarton wrote, “I think of trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. Imitate the trees.” Autumn is such a beautiful time of year. Let’s follow its lead and elegantly let go in preparation for a season of thanksgiving, peace, and hope. §

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

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