Thursday, November 27, 2014

on gratitude

roasted brussels sprouts
Thanksgiving is a time to pause — to gather with those most important to us, to prepare a celebratory feast, and to reflect on our lives and recognize what we are most grateful for.

Gratitude seems simple, at first — it is easy to feel grateful for family, friends, favorite foods, good books, funny films, good health, and the privileges associated with a first-world lifestyle — clean drinking water, access to nutritious food, relative physical safety, ease of transportation, important work for which we are compensated, and time and energy to pursue hobbies, interests, and passions.

However, I believe, gratitude is much more complex.  It is very, very difficult to feel grateful for stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss.  Why should one try?  Stress, transitions, pain, illness, and loss are unpleasant at best, and at first glance, seem contradictory to the spirit of gratitude.  In fact, I have noticed many over the years encourage others to “get through” periods of stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss by practicing gratitude — by focusing on all of the good things they still have in their lives.

mini nut loaves
In my opinion, this type of gratitude practice is spectacularly unfair to the person going through a challenging time.  Yes, we do always have plenty to be grateful for, but, in my opinion, ignoring, distracting from, or “gratitude washing” that pain is disrespectful to that person’s experience, and leads to incomplete healing after that period of stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss has come to its conclusion.

Why do we practice “gratitude washing?”  Because, I believe, the alternate choice — coming to a place where we are truly grateful for that stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss — seems impossible to many.  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the loss of a job at a time of economic uncertainty?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the death of a loved one?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a miscarriage?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for cancer?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want?

It’s tricky, and in my experience, it takes time.  I’m here to tell you, however, that it is entirely possible to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want.  How, you ask?

creamy corn pudding
Simply, I refuse to live my life with regrets.  I have made a million mistakes in my lifetime, some of them big, some of them small, but I choose to never play the “if I could go back in time” game.  Why?  Because all of those mistakes I have made have been mine, and have made me the person I am today.  I would never choose to go back and erase bits and pieces of my life — who knows what would happen?  If I knew three years ago what I know today, I would likely make all of the same choices I made, in regards to my marriage.  (If you had asked me that question three months ago, however, I’m certain I would have answered differently.)

So, how is it that I find myself in a place where I feel grateful for a divorce that I didn’t want?  

I am grateful because of how much I have learned about marriage, about love, about life, about others, and about myself.  I am grateful because I have landed in a season of “radical self-care.”  If I hadn’t had this experience dealing with a divorce I didn’t want, I may never have learned the importance of self-care, and exactly what I need to do to take care of myself fully and completely.

spiced sweet potato casserole
This seems like a silly thing to say at the age of 35, but I am realizing I am just beginning to learn how to take care of myself properly.  I got the basics at a younger age, obviously — I shower, go to the doctor and dentist, eat reasonably, stay active, etc.  However, in processing the loss of my marriage, I found that I really hadn’t been taking all that good of care of myself, despite knowing “the basics.”  

At first, I found myself almost feeling “lost” without my husband — without someone to take care of.  As a woman working in a helping profession, you can imagine how much time I have devoted over the years to caring for others — so much time, in fact, that it comes second nature to me.  Self-care seems to be practiced by few teachers, I believe because it is looked down upon by so many in the field — many believe the children should come first, always.  Work yourself to the bone, skip your breaks, come in early, stay late, shovel in your lunch as quickly as possible so you can get back to work, because, after all, it’s FOR THE CHILDREN.  I disagree, wholeheartedly, with this attitude.  Why?  For two reasons: first, because if the children always come first children learn to be selfish, and second, because it is physically and emotionally impossible to always put another person’s needs before your own.  Sometimes, you just need to eat a snack, take a break, go to the bathroom, or have a bad day, regardless of whether another person needs you at that particular moment in time.

caramelized onion and herb stuffing
In retrospect, I believe I entered my marriage physically and emotionally depleted from years of teaching and not practicing proper self-care.  My cup was empty, and I looked to my husband to fill it.  Others can “top off” our cups from time to time, but expecting another to fill our cup is unreasonable and a recipe for disaster.

True story: that disaster happened to me.  And here I am, on the other side, just now learning how to fill my own cup.  I spend an incredible amount of time alone, walking, reading, practicing yoga, cooking, journaling, and just thinking.  I wallow in my introversion, and do not feel guilty for a second.  I have always been a healthy eater, but I have never been so planful, so careful, so thoughtful about the meals I prepare for myself as I have lately.  I floss.  This seems like a ridiculous thing to be proud of, but hey — I’ve had dentists telling me to floss for 35 years, and I now, for the first time in my life, floss regularly.  I get monthly pedicures.  I buy myself little treats from time to time.  I make exercise a priority — I get out for walks even when the weather is lousy, even when I am tired, because I know I need to.  Even though I spend so much time alone, I say “yes” to more and more than I ever did before — more regular attendance for church choir, more meals and outings with friends, more responsibilities at work.  And surprisingly, I don’t find myself dreading this “more” any more, complaining about these joys in my life like I used to.  Why was everything so hard before?  Because I was depleted.  My cup was empty, and I didn’t have the energy or resources to fill it.

scalloped poatoes
No longer.  I am learning how to fill my own cup again.  Once I feel like I’ve got the hang of this, I will let someone else in again; this time, someone who knows how to fill his own cup, and who can help top off mine from time to time.

For now, I practice gratitude for this season I am in.  A season of radical self-care.  This is why, despite four different invitations to join others for Thanksgiving dinner, (all of which I am grateful for,) I chose to stay in and cook for myself this year.  I am choosing to remind myself that, in my world, I am the most important person.  I am grateful for myself.

the feast
And pie.  I’m always grateful for pie.  :)

crustless pumpkin pie


Melody Polakow Photography said...

This is really powerful and inspiring! You are one cool chick. Your food looks amazing too!

Brighter Than the Sun said...

Beautiful, inspiring and delicious! Way to put the love of self is the only way to go. Let me know when you come out with your first cookbook:) love, Blair