I spent Thanksgiving in a house filled with friends. I was warm on the coldest Thanksgiving Day in 27 years. I was well-fed. I was welcomed into a family not my own by nature, but made mine by nurture.
Yet I was sad and lonely. I felt the pressing weight of all the perceived failures of my life. I felt I’d let myself down, let everyone else down. I missed my folks and my siblings. In short, I had worked up a whole mess of self-pity. It sat like a lump of congealed stuffing in my throat. I had trouble breathing around it.
Putting it into words like this just points out the stark contrast between my objective reality and my emotional reality. After returning home that night, I reflected on this dichotomy, and gave myself a stern talking-to. When I awoke on Black Friday, I was determined to shift my emotional reality by taking a firm hold on my thoughts. I resolved to be grateful – to put into practice the thanksgiving for which the previous day’s holiday was named.
It went pretty well, for a while. I worked, then went back to the home of my friends. This time I relaxed into the warmth of their family and the love they shared with me. Hugs and laughter filled my evening. I was truly infused with gratitude.
When I returned home, there was no heat in my apartment.
After an uncomfortable and essentially sleepless night, I went to work. And promptly gave myself a fat lip in an altercation with a milk crate. My feet hurt. I couldn’t find my earmuffs. The “Check engine soon” light came on in my car. And I got a notice from the bank that my checking account was empty.
“I defy ANYONE to focus on gratitude in these circumstances,” I shouted in my head while driving. I shook a mental fist at the sky.
The universe definitely has a twisted sense of humor. Or perhaps it isn’t humor so much as a type of tough love. “You say you’re committed to gratitude,” it asks? “Let’s see how committed.” In the face of this test, I looked for inner resources or wisdom to help me through. I found none. So I did what has often worked for me in the past – I went and stood in front of my bookcase, wondering if anything there could arrest my downward spiral.
I reached out and my hand came back holding a book I’ve owned for years. One I’d tried reading on several occasions but found lacking. I opened to a random page and read the heading: “Step 7: Remember What You Love”. Those four words struck me the way a deep, sonic thunderclap does during an electrical storm; I felt it boom in my chest. Intuitively, I knew that this was important.
Further down the page, the following passage leaped out at me:
The most important part of naming what you love…is that you return to self. You develop the habit of remembering your Spirit, and you stay more true to it.
In this blog, and in my daily life, I try to stay positive, to marshall my thinking in order to prevent a slide into anxiety and depression. I’ve alluded to the fact that things have not gone as I hoped since I moved here, and sometimes I’ve bemoaned how hard it has been. I’m sure many of you have picked up on the truth I’ve danced around: this year has been among the hardest and loneliest of my life. (Not only these things, not unredeemed by beauty, but pretty darn hard.)
I’ve tried to always end on an up-note – both for my own benefit and to protect those who love me from concern for my well-being. In order to avoid giving in to despair, I’ve closed myself off from things that gave me joy in the past, as if shutting down until I’ve “settled in” is a proactive choice. Neither of these choices has been authentic. Life doesn’t always end on an up note, and avoidance is rarely genuinely proactive.
The holidays are a perfect example of what I’ve been doing on so many fronts. Last year, I announced that I was going to pretend that Christmas (my life-long favorite holiday and season) just wasn’t happening. I ignored it. I avoided holiday music; I didn’t have a television so I was spared seeing any holiday movies or specials; I bought no gifts and exchanged very few merry greetings. Christmas came and went in the midst of an unremittingly cold season – like Narnia in the grip of the White Witch, in my heart it was always winter but never Christmas.
I spent this past weekend, when I wasn’t at work, binge-reading the book I picked off the shelf. (The Answer Is Simple…Love Yourself, Live Your Spirit by Sonia Choquette) On Monday, my day off, I finally got to the chapter on remembering what you love. I read it early in the morning, wrapped in a down comforter, a hot cup of coffee in my hand and three space heaters going in my (still) unheated apartment. I read:
…simply remember, and announce, what you love. Talk about it often, to yourself and with others. Doing so effects a course correction, bringing you back to the real you. It feeds you. It fuels you. Ind it instills joy in you, which is one of the most self-loving things there is.
The day was bitterly cold, with wind chills clocking in at -25. But I put the book down, and set about reminding myself of the things I love. I dressed warmly, drawing on an old cashmere sweater that I’ve loved for years – a robins-egg blue and softer than anything else I’ve ever worn. I laced up my new -25 rated boots. I drove to Gigi’s Cafe, where I love a cup of the silky-smooth potato-cauliflower soup with a slice of fresh bread and an Americano in a large glass tumbler.
I love my friends, so I randomly texted several of them to say so. I love my family, so I finally got the Christmas gift-giving cycle settled with my siblings and nieces/nephews. I texted my sister, Annie, whom I love wholeheartedly, and asked when she could talk (later, I called her). I love being outdoors, the crystalline clarity of light on very cold days, crunching through snow in my boots. I love decorating my apartment for Christmas, so I began that process (it may not be finished any time soon, but that’s part of the fun) by scavenging in the woods for a couple of branches which I plan to turn into a decorated tree. I love Minneapolis, so I took photos of things I saw in my travels about town all afternoon.
When I returned home, after an afternoon of recalling and acting on the things I love, my whole body was buzzing with energy. Although I’d spent the day alone, I felt connected. Though no huge, momentous event had occurred, something inside had shifted, making it easier to breathe.
And in a twist of the universe’s quixotic sense of humor, when I walked in, the heat was on in my apartment. After three days (and nights) of remaining cruelly cold, the radiator hummed with heat. I called my landlady, who confirmed that the boiler repairman had not been there. “My daughter claims there’s a ghost in that system,” she said. But I suspected something else – namely, that the universe wanted me to pay attention.
When we choose to cut ourselves off from the things we love, from the small joys in life, in order to protect ourselves from the hurts, disappointments and difficulties that daily living entails, we end up cutting ourselves off from the very things that offer us warmth and meaning. I may be alone a lot of the time, but I don’t have to be lonely – connection is a text or phone call away. It may be sad to experience Christmas without my family, but that sadness is part of the larger context of living fully and authentically. The good and the bad are both part of the same whole – trying to inhabit the narrow margin where they meet means living in an awfully cramped emotional space. As it turns out, I had forgotten that I know this.
I had forgotten to inhabit my own Spirit. Remembering and connecting with the people and things I love really can serve as a trail leading me home to myself. Remembering this, I am finally, truly, in a place of gratitude. I’m not ending on a false up-note here: the externals haven’t changed, and what has been hard remains so. But my spirit, my home, is so much more expansive than I’ve been allowing it to be. It feels good to, finally, remember this.