Drawer

20181127_152912(0)Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree.  As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.

As I was adrift in memories, I realized something.  Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.  

It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations.  You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe.  Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often.  Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.

For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me.  My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital.  When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.

It’s not our fault.  Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc.  Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.

But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity.  It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much.  They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.

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Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life.  My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful.  He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping.  He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.

Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis.  So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training.  In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.

Trees

20180824_154353“Places remember what people forget.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees.  Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history.  For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

It got me thinking of all that trees observe.  In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old.  What have they seen in their lifetimes?  Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west?  Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.

I thought of all of the trees in my own history.  Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up.  I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building!  The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden.  One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing.  I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids.  I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away!  Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes.  I could have been impaled!  Yet, I looked up and saw the tree.  Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.

There was also another tree in my backyard.  It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple.  I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills.  My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York.  They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.

My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house.  He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights.  I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit.  I don’t know if my brother cared.  He just wanted to engage in battle.

Trees are silent witnesses to so many events.  They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history.  There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy.  There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.

I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here.  These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs.  Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard.  She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs.  It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.

As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators.  Observe.  Take it all in.  Be in the background for a while.  Just watch. See what unfolds.

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