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

The Elegance of Summer’s Bounty

 

There is no finer example of true elegance than that of nature. In summer, it generously bestows miraculous gifts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. How pleased nature must be when we appreciate them. Here are ten ways to graciously accept and celebrate summer’s bounty. 

  1. Be Amazed. Imagine you never laid eyes on a bright yellow sunflower, smelled a bunch of lavender, or bit into a juicy, sweet strawberry. What a happy surprise they would be! Intentionally celebrate the gifts of summer as if for the first time. 
  2. Visit a Farmer’s Market. My husband and I stop by a farmers’ market a couple times each week during the summer. Not only do we go home with a variety of fresh-from-the-farm produce, it’s always a humbling reminder that the good food on our plates depends on experienced, hard-working hands.
  3. Gather Summer Blooms. I bet something pretty is blooming right outside your front door that you could clip, arrange, and slip into a little vase. If not, take a walk or drive and you’re sure to find some wildflowers growing in a road-side ditch. Pick just a few to add a touch of summer to your home. 
  4. Cook with Fresh Herbs. My husband is the chef in our house, and I’m always impressed by how he jazzes up simple meals with fresh herbs from our backyard. Identifying and relishing the distinct flavors of basil, dill, cilantro, mint, and rosemary makes our mealtimes more flavorful and mindful.  
  5. Go to a You-Pick Destination. We recently picked our own lavender from rows and rows of hazy purple flowers. The heavenly scent transported us straight to Provence. Whether you pick your own flowers, fruit, or vegetables, it’s a summertime ritual not to be missed. (If you’re in southern Illinois, be sure to visit Lavender Falls U-Pick Farm in Mt. Vernon.) 
  6. Eat a Rainbow. The practice of eating a rainbow every day simply reminds us to have a diet filled with colorful fruits and veggies. Different colors in produce deliver specific nutrients. For example, red foods like tomatoes and strawberries contain an antioxidant called lycopene. It’s easy to eat a rainbow during the summer months.
  7. Get Creative. Beautiful things in nature inspire creativity. Consider masterpieces like Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers or George Gershwin’s aria from Porgy and Bess called Summertime. Let a big blue hydrangea or a bowl of ripe strawberries inspire you to draw, paint, or write a poem.
  8. Dine Al Fresco. There is no better way to enjoy nature’s bounty than dining outdoors. A warm breeze, the song of birds, and the changing colors of the sky, all add to the ambiance of a memorable summer meal. 
  9. Share the Goodness. A few weeks ago, we found some superb blackberries and knew we needed to get a quart for my father-in-law, too. He later surprised us with some perfect peaches. Whether you have an abundance of cucumbers or prolific rose bushes, sharing the gifts of summer only increases their pleasure. 
  10. Feel Gratitude. This week we bought a small bunch of gorgeous sunflowers at the grocery store for four dollars. I cut their thick fuzzy stems and arranged them in a vase that I keep moving around the house. Each time I scurry by them with a load of laundry, see them from the kitchen sink, or sit near them while I write, they bring a sigh of appreciation.

    As poet Celia Thaxter wrote long ago, “There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” And gratitude is an elegance we can cultivate all year long.§


    “A life without love is like a year without summer.”
    ~Swedish Proverb

From the Prayer Garden ~ Help. Thanks. Wow.

My best days always include a long walk alone with my thoughts. For the past few weeks, my daily treks have taken me on a path leading to a better understanding of the power of prayer.

Since the first of December, I’ve been living in my hometown with my mom after she had a mild stroke. Although I miss my hikes in the secluded woods of our home in Indiana, I’ve still been able to get in a daily walk. My route takes me through the neighborhood, down the sidewalk of a busy street, across the train tracks, to the intersection of a main road, and back again.

One blustery afternoon, a patch of woods along the train tracks called to me. I left the concrete sidewalk and headed a different direction across the frosty ground close to the tree line. As my feet kicked through thick crisp leaves, I heard myself let out a long breath I’d been holding for weeks. I closed my eyes briefly and opened them to find myself in a small prayer garden.

The garden is situated on the edge of the grounds of a large church that wasn’t there when I was growing up. It’s a small area that’s simply but well-designed. I sat on one of the cold stone benches, knowing what I needed to do. There was much to pray about, but my thoughts blew and swirled around like the dry brown leaves trapped against the garden wall.

I settled in for some serious invocation, but my mind focused on inconsequential details in front of me – moss growing on the large center boulder, the patterned brick below my feet, the low curved wall. Okay, pray.

In the silence, my attention turned to the sound of the wind shaking copper leaves still clinging to their branches, the distant squawk of geese dotting the gray sky, and the busy scratching of a squirrel in a nearby tree. C’mon, focus.

Frustrated with myself, I shook my head only to notice another distraction – an abundance of acorns, hickory nuts, and broken shells scattered at my feet. I scoffed at my spiritual ineptitude.

A train was rumbling down the tracks. Its low blowing horn and clattering of iron on iron came closer and closer, roaring louder and louder in my crowded mind. Suddenly I remembered the title of a book by Anne Lamott called Help. Thanks. Wow. In it the author advocates three simple prayers – one of supplication, one of gratitude, and one of sheer awe.

I walked in a slow circle around the center of the garden, picking up acorns and nuts and placing them on stones to help me visualize each individual prayer. Instead of a train wreck of messy thoughts in my head, my prayers were laid out in a neat, comprehensible pattern along the garden wall.

Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow.

I walk to the prayer garden nearly every day now. In my own way, I suppose I always pray as I walk, but time in this sacred spot makes my prayers more clear, more intentional, more hopeful, and more faithful.

The title of Lamott’s book reminds me to keep my prayers in specific, grateful, and humble balance. For every prayer asking for help, there’s another for thanks, and yet another for joyful praise of things like serendipitously stumbling upon a private and holy sanctuary just when it’s needed most. §

December Gratitude Challenge – a positive way to bid farewell to 2020

The year 2020 will probably go down in the history books as one of the worst ever! How can we possibly be grateful for a year like this? It reminds me of a story I heard when I was very young.

There once were twin boys. One was exceedingly pessimistic and the other exceedingly optimistic. Their parents, quite concerned, took them to a psychiatrist. The doctor put the pessimist in a room full of everything a child could ever desire. From a one-way mirror, they observed the boy sitting in the corner crying and wailing, “The candy is sticky! The toys are broken! The ice cream is melting! Everything is just terrible!”

Meanwhile, the optimist was placed in a room filled to the brim with horse manure. The boy was observed laughing and cheerfully digging through the manure. Astonished, the doctor went in the room and asked what he was doing. The young optimist replied, “With all this poop, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I don’t know about you, but against a backdrop of serious global and national challenges, I had my share of personal struggles this year. More than once, I felt like that little boy in a room full of horse manure. What the story taught me long ago was to always look for the pony.

It’s when things seem bad that it’s most important to look for the good. It might sound overly simple and trite, but appreciating the little things really is what makes life worth living ~ an amazing sunrise, a funny joke, a bluebird at the feeder, a delicious meal, a beautiful song, a hot bath, a friendly wink.

Gratitude and optimism go hand-in-hand. Businessman Price Pritchett said, “There’s a lot more to be gained from being grateful than you might think. Managing your outlook towards appreciation and thankfulness feeds the soul. It brings calm and contentment. It lifts your levels of happiness and hope. Gratitude will amplify your positive recollections about times past, and in turn sets the stage for optimism about the future.”

To help say goodbye to 2020 with an attitude of gratitude, I’m suggesting a December Gratitude Challenge. The idea is to focus on all the joy that still surrounds us at the end of what was not the greatest year ever.

There are many ways you can join in the December Gratitude Challenge. Keep a journal, make a paper chain, stick Post-Its on the mirror, or just add it to your nightly prayers. I decided to make a Gratitude Jar.

Every evening in December, my husband and I will each write something specific for which we were grateful that day and drop the slip of paper into the jar. On New Year’s Eve, we will read them together. (That Mike is going along with this will likely be the first thing I add to the jar!)

Even, no, especially in a year like this, December is a month when miracles happen. Tiny miracles. Big miracles. Good things are all around us. Sometimes we just have to dig a little to find them. §

To Everything There is a Season

As summer turns to fall, I feel an equal sense of sadness and anticipation. I will miss warm sunny days spent outdoors but look forward to cozy chilly evenings curled up by a glowing fire. Similar mixed emotions can appear when we say goodbye to one season of life and step into another.

As we travel through our lives, we are like tourists passing through towns and villages with names like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, empty nest, retirement and old age. As much as we may wish to permanently settle in any one of those places, we must move on.

Although seasons of life are often of equal length, do you find the journey through each one speeds up as we get older? Looking back, my first twenty years or so seem to take up the most space on my personal timeline.

The same number of years spent raising my children was a blink of an eye. Thirty years as a teacher was a snap of my fingers. It’s as if I was looking out a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

I miss it like I miss summertime.

Then I remember a favorite Bible verse ~ To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. King Solomon employs the poetic device of repetition to illustrate the ceaseless, often antithetical, changes in life.

A time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh

A time to mourn, and a time to dance

Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the changing seasons, we are not in control. The verse encourages us to enjoy each season of life, no matter what it brings, and rejoice in all of our days.

Quite honestly, I spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Doing so can fill me with a deep sense of longing and regret that keeps me from paying attention to the road I’m on. I suspect I’m not alone in this struggle. Perhaps that’s why Ecclesiastes 3 is a compass for so many of us sojourners. We know it as scripture and as song.

Everything is made beautiful in its time, the poet goes on to say. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Then, quite suddenly, our days stretch before us as empty as bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories or look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the exact season in which we find ourselves. §

A Poem as Lovely as a Tree

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree… 

So begins Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees. I was about ten when I first read the poem in a book at school. I was drawn to its uncomplicated rhythm and rhyme. At such a tender age, I was also excited to understand a poem not written for a child. Gazing out the library window, I could see Kilmer’s beautiful trees joyfully reaching towards the heavens.

I find it amusing that Mr. Kilmer’s well-known poem is sometimes disparaged for being overly simple, sweet and straightforward. Funny, because that’s exactly how I like things to be! There are more sophisticated poems about nature, but Trees was one of the first to offer me a poetic reminder to be filled with gratitude, acceptance, and humility for my own existence.

Trees

I think that I shall never see  

A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

~Joyce Kilmer, 1913

Gratitude ~ Kilmer personified a tree that lifts its leafy arms to pray in appreciation for its life and the nourishment it receives from the sweet earth’s flowing breast. Like the tree, shouldn’t we rejoice and give praise for our creation and the abundance of earthly resources that allow us to live and grow?

Acceptance ~ The poet uses clear imagery to portray a tree that in summer may wear a nest of robins in its hair. The tree gladly accepts its purpose of providing shade and shelter for birds and other creatures. It may be covered deep in snow and pounding rain, yet it stands sturdy through the seasons. Can you and I accept our responsibilities and challenges with as much as grace?

Humility ~ More than one hundred years after writing this poem, Kilmer’s message still rings true. As we try to make our mark on the world in whatever way we’re led, we’d be fools to think our accomplishments could ever match the perfection found in nature. It’s humbling (and a bit of a relief) to remember no matter how creative and productive we become, man-made things will never compare to God’s handiwork.

National Poetry Month seems a perfect time for us to reflect on this poem. It encourages me to humbly, though perhaps foolishly, continue writing about the peace, joy, and gratitude I feel for nature’s beauty created by the greatest poet of all. §