My girls are getting older and now that Lola is in high school, I’ve really been hit with the knowledge that they are strong, capable young women who are reaching for independence. It’s a delicate balance for me as their mom, to let them stretch themselves and to keep reminding them that I am here if they want me – for adventures or to vent, as a shoulder to cry on or just someone to hang out with on the rare evening they don’t have other plans.
I remember that desperate need to be on my own, to prove that I could do it myself, to peel off from my family and firmly attach myself to my friend-tribe. When I left for college, I came home so rarely, convinced that the new family I had created was so much better, so much more fun and supportive. And in some ways, they were, but there is something powerful about that other tribe – the one that shares my history, that remembers who I was all those years ago (and loves me anyway).
Last weekend, Lola and I traveled to the central coast of California to hang out with that tribe, my mom’s siblings and their spouses and kids. And even though Mom couldn’t be there with us, it felt like coming home. Looking around the table to see faces that are so familiar, hear laughter that I remember deep in my bones from years past, was grounding in a way I can’t really describe. I loved the opportunity to remind Lola that she is part of this group whether she wants to be or not. There is a special mix of nurturing and support, loud hilarity and not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously that has been there ever since I can remember. This group has weathered major storms over the years and come out smiling because they do it together. No matter the brand of tragedy, there is a set-your-jaw-and-roll-up-your-sleeves mentality that doesn’t back down and doesn’t forget that in the midst of all of it, there is joy to be found. This is a group that doesn’t shy away from the full range of emotions available to us (sometimes swinging from one to the other with dizzying speed), all the while holding on tightly to each and every other member of the family. And it’s a group whose definition of family extends beyond bloodlines to include others who are deeply loved and abide by the rule of having each others’ backs.
While I really wish Eve had been able to join us, I came away knowing that we will do this again soon and I’ll bring her along because I think that this is the perfect time for both of my girls to be reminded that there is a strong, smart, compassionate, funny-as-hell group of people who will always be there for them, who are rooting for them as they spread their wings and head out into the world to do whatever it is they decide to do. I know that I have always felt grateful to be able to rely on the absolute bedrock of this family to both hold me up when times were tough and make me laugh until I pee – sometimes simultaneously.
throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way
to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection
than the average person.
adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of
gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most
challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether
that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet
out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind
would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had
in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking
patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a
short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort
of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.
not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an
innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it
to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a
friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels
trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.
Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’
things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or
for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am
nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my
depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic
nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up
with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to
be grateful for.
starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if
it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for
which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My
hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her
up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for
the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was
grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over
time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened
during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being
picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to
appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective
shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed
to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of
competence and groundedness.
come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective
for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting
with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life
to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or
that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be
worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”),
I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me
my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious.
Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that
one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just
dodging a bullet.
in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful
gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a
positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often
intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about
the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the
challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice
that there are many positive things in my life, too.
sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing
– often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things
better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I
won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all
around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but
I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and
happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming
though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned
in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am
grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify
things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop
and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write
and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a
glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of
dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and
thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can
keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure
gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.
right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce
serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice
all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring
my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it
does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that
give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more
able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of
letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.
In the middle of the day. With piles of laundry yet to be washed, a dog that desperately
wanted a walk, and a dinner plan yet to be determined. I ran a deep, hot bath, added a few
drops of lavender essential oil, lit a candle, and stepped in.
framing two sides, frosted below for privacy, and open to the sky on top. Lying back, I could see a triangle of
roof with the downspout attached, a few bare tree branches, and grey sky. We have enjoyed a lot of sunshine in
the last week and temperatures in the upper 50s, but today was grey with
spitting rain and that soft light that makes it impossible to tell what time of
day it is without consulting a clock.
right side of my lips. My nostrils
flared slightly and the left side of my mouth followed until I was positively
grinning. For no reason. I hadn’t
just remembered something funny or sweet or thought about something exciting in
the near future. I just
something my nine-year-old said to me once. And I finally understood what she
just paid a visit to her favorite teacher. Mrs. H had suffered a severe bout of pain and dizziness the
night before and was rushed to the ER and evaluated for a stroke. She was disoriented and confused and,
at the time of our visit, still in some measure of discomfort. And the doctors had no real answers. Despite that, she was delighted to see
Lola and I walk in to her room and she immediately squeezed us both tightly and
began talking in her rushed, irreverent way. The three of us were laughing within minutes and Lola
perched on the side of the hospital bed with Mrs. H’s arm draped over her. We bounced from topic to topic, dipping
our toes in the waters of concern, but mostly skipping lightly around school,
pets, and things we were looking forward to. When Mrs. H began to get tired, Lola and I left, promising
to check back later in the day.
bit melancholy. I caught glimpses
of other patients, lying in bed asleep with mouths agape, struggling to get out
of bed, pushing IV poles down the hallway as they steadied themselves against a
nurse or a loved-one. I thought
about Mrs. H and all she has meant to us and our family over the years and
found myself sending an urgent wish out to the Universe that she heal quickly
and completely. I was lost in my
own thoughts until I felt Lola’s bouncing gait next to me and looked at her.
her head from shoulder to shoulder and singing a little song under her
breath. Her eyes twinkled with
mischief and she wore a huge grin.
I had originally resisted bringing her, worried that it might upset her to see
her beloved teacher sick or in pain.
confusion and let out a laugh.
a reason to be sad or upset or angry, but you can be happy just because you’re
say. She truly believes it. She lives it.
me. As the smile crept across my
face, the first thought I had was, ‘what
are you smiling about?’ The
answer that came to me first was, ‘Nothing.
to be happy.’
determination, sore muscles and peace I gain from it, but because it is where I
hear that strong, inner voice most clearly. Without fail, as soon as I let my
guard down and begin my physical practice, words come to my head. Simple words
that don’t necessarily strike me as being important at the time, but they
resonate for days afterward. Last week’s epiphany was no exception. It didn’t
knock me over with a shout inside my head or jolt me into instant clarity. It
fell like a raindrop in a deep pool. It was quiet, melted into my brain without
a trace, and rippled. And rippled. And rippled.
a place of fear?
thought. Throughout the week I found myself amazed at how often my reactions
originate in fear and how fear is responsible for outlining the space in which
I act. When I recognize the source for what it is and consciously move from
fear to acceptance or love, everything changes. I can feel a shift in my body
as I relax into groundedness and space. My mind becomes open and possibilities
expand forward. The walls around begin to dissolve.
are restricted and I begin to make connections that aren’t necessarily related.
If this happens, next comes this and then it swells into that and…Oh, No!
Spiraling anxiety as the fear feeds on the tightly coiled energy inside my body
and brain and I’m locked inside with it.
acceptance or groundedness there are no boundaries. In fact, once I make that
subtle course change, I no longer feel the need to drive any agenda. Whereas
with fear, I’m compelled to either stick to the course my anxiety has laid out
or fight to alter it in some way, when I let go of fear, I am more likely to
sit back and see where things go next. I don’t need to act within any
particular moment to make something happen or prevent it from happening. I am
able to temper my responses and, very often, the next step reveals itself or
negates any action on my part at all.
watch myself and come to realize just how often angry or frustrated or anxious
feelings arise from my fears. When Eve and Lola begin bickering, it is my fear
that leads me to snap at them to “knock it off!” When I send out yet
another email to a prospective agent or publisher, it is fear that drives me to
downplay my own writing abilities or the importance of this book project to me.
When I get annoyed at being interrupted while I’m mentally planning my day, it
is because I am afraid that I’ll lose the thread of thought and somehow
“fail” to do all of the things I’ve convinced myself I ought to do in
order to be the best mother/writer/wife/friend.
“What would this look like if it weren’t coming from a place of
fear?” I am astonished at the possibilities. What if I trust my own
abilities as a mother/writer/wife/friend and simply act out of love and the
understanding that I have enough. I am good enough. There is an abundance of
love/compassion/intelligence/patience/money/whatever I need. When I source my
feelings and thoughts and actions from that well, life looks pretty damned
Such a standard question, whether we meet someone on an airplane or find
ourselves at a child’s Back-to-School Night or at a dinner party for our
partner. Such a simple question
and so loaded.
answer, but it feels so inadequate.
I am a product of my upbringing, a survivor of sexual abuse, a child of
divorce. For years I looked
forward to becoming an adult so that I could free myself from my parents and
become less defined by them and their hold on me. I looked forward to exploring the world and looking at
things in a new light and making decisions that would shape my future. I wanted to fully blossom into the
person I was meant to be.
identity stories would come with me, packed snugly in whatever vessel I chose
to carry as I made my way in the world.
Any decision I made hearkened back to the lessons I had learned, the
overarching messages I had heard over and over again, and the things I told
myself in an effort to make sense of the way my life was as a child. No matter how “free” I thought I was,
making decisions I knew my parents would disapprove of or choosing things because
they were so vastly different from the choices they would have made, the fact
is that I was still shaped by my experiences with them.
found out I was going to have a baby.
I was going to be a mother. And I vowed to make good, healthy choices. I
vowed to make decisions with more self-awareness than my parents had. I vowed to be different. And still, those notions of who I was
and wanted to be stemmed from the stories I told myself about where I came
hard way. For most of my life,
they had been the levees on either side of my life path. Always present,
bounding my idea of who I was and leading me in a certain direction. I moved forward, unquestioning,
frustrated by the limitations, but never truly understanding that these
boundaries were of my own making.
of my own evolution. And I began to count the years that I have been things
other than what I grew up with.
Eighteen years married to a loving, supportive man. Twelve years as the
mother of an energetic, open-hearted daughter. Thirty years a writer.
Three years a yoga practitioner.
And for most of this time, I have been padding the scales on the other
side. Thirty-two years a survivor
of sexual abuse. Thirty years a child of divorce. Yes. But those
things are no more indicative of who I am than the things toward which I am moving
and striving. And their hold is
beginning to expire. The statute of limitations is running out.
happens to us as humans, it takes five positive experiences to counteract it.
Evolutionarily, that was important so that we would remember the harmful,
frightening things and not repeat them or put ourselves in danger. When I think about it that way, I
realize that I have had so many more positive moments in my life that I chose
to live out within the boundaries of the “Who I Am” levee than it took to
actually construct those walls in the first place. I am allowed to evolve. I am allowed to grow and add to the
list of “who I am.” I am allowed to strive for more and let those unhappy
definitions fall to the bottom where they belong. There is no forgetting or negating the impact they had on
the person I am becoming, but there is also no reason to let them limit who I
can become. Or who I am
might be.” In giving myself
permission to expand the definition of who I am, I can begin to move past the
things that I have limited myself to for so many years. When the levee walls fall away, the
possibilities are endless.
I am someone who used to be prone to depression. I say “used to be” because it has been a long time since I really felt that deep, penetrating sense of darkness, and I’d like to think I’m cured. If that’s even a thing.
After coming out of the last dark hole without the help of pharmaceuticals, I was simultaneously thrilled that it was possible (for me) and waiting for the slapdown because I had gotten too cocky. Too big for my britches. Thought I was above it all. As if depression were some spiteful older relative who was setting me up to watch me fall, laughing in the corner as I celebrated because he knew he had the power to pull the rug out from under me.
I remember being afraid to even hear the word “depression” for fear that that combination of letters could trigger another episode. I couldn’t read about someone else’s struggle with it, nor could I watch a television show or movie that featured any characters who were depressed. It seemed contagious, like my emergence from the darkness was the result of the fact that I had simply forgotten it was part of me – a limb I was ignoring but would soon rediscover and have to deal with. Seeing someone else with the same thing would inevitably draw my attention to it and dump me right back into that deep hole.
But it turns out that depression doesn’t work that way. And on some level, I always knew that, but when you are still feeling tender from the last blow, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that the next one is right around the corner. And so I cowered. But eventually I came out of my hiding place and started to think that maybe this time I could be ok for a while. Or longer.
And it’s been a long time. And I’m grateful.
But this week I discovered Furiously Happy, a book about depression and what it means to fully embrace the craziest, most wildly happy things in life. And I am remembering that, while gratitude is great, it is somewhere near the middle of the rise (and fall) of the roller coaster, but happiness like Lawson writes about, that is at the top, with the amazing views and the stomach-dropping adrenaline and the involuntary grin that spreads so wide you think your face will split like an overripe watermelon. And while it is probably way overused, that phrase “feel all the feels” comes to mind, with the emphasis on the ALL part.
Sometimes, when I am acutely aware of my status as a responsible adult, I hold back from laughing out loud when I see something ridiculous. I put all my energy into anticipating who will be hungry when and do we have healthy snacks in the house. I pay attention to the road and the pedestrians because I have a new driver in the car who is watching me (or not, it’s sometimes hard to tell). I look for the lessons – and, believe me, during this crazy election cycle there are plenty of lessons. Sometimes I forget that adulting and irreverence are not mutually exclusive.
Last week I was really sick. That kind of sick where you really can’t make yourself get up off of the couch and every time you try you fall over again. I mostly slept for two days. But then, even when I wasn’t tired anymore, I discovered that I couldn’t just bounce back, that emptying the dishwasher was enough to physically exhaust me and I had to go sit on the couch. The problem with this is that I normally don’t sit around much. Unless I am reading a really great book, I can’t sit still for very long and I certainly can’t watch more than one TV show at a time without getting up to do something else. So being forced to sit around was painfully boring and I started getting a little weird. At one point I found myself looking at all of the emojis on my phone and texted them to Lola.
Because who uses a circular saw blade emoji*? Or maybe it is supposed to be a free-floating gear? In any case, who created that and why? And what about the bamboo one with the little star-like thing and the red flag/leaf coming off of it? What the hell is that supposed to symbolize? I spent a long time looking at all of the stock emojis available, imagining what prompted their creation, and bugging Lola who was busy in her room doing homework. She was amused for a while, but quickly ran out of patience with me. I think her final text went something like: Oh, God, Mom! You need to find something to do.
The point of this was that it was useless and fun and goofy and that’s something I haven’t been in a while (well, I hope I’m never useless). And it rocked. And it reminded me that I can crack that door of irreverence open whenever I want to – not just when I’m deliriously sick – and that it is restorative. And since then, I smile whenever I think of something funny, even when I’m the only one around. Like this morning when I drove by a guy walking his pug (who, incidentally, looked exactly like the human version of his own dog) who thought he was alone and mimicked his dog’s whole-body-shake-the-pouring-rain-off-of-me maneuver and stuck his tongue out at him. I laughed out loud. Or when I heard a song in my head as I stepped out of the shower and instead of trying to banish it or ignore it, I decided to dance to it. By myself. In the bathroom. And that dance move was the first one I’ve done in a while.
My poor kids. I think I’m going to start being weird a little more often. It’s pretty fun.
*I just looked up that emoji on my phone because I was going to post a picture of it here and I think it’s supposed to be a gear, but in my defense, that is still a fairly obscure thing to have on one’s phone. There is also a table clamp one which is beyond ridiculous because, really? And, as someone who doesn’t often use emojis because, well, I’m 44 years old, both of them are now in my “frequently used” emojis that pop up whenever I text someone. So I’m going to start using them both to see if I can confuse people and make them wonder what the hell I mean by that. Because that’s fun, right?
I have just had the most extraordinary experience, and despite the fact that I’m sitting in an artificially-lit room with rain showering down from charcoal-grey skies outside, I am absolutely glowing.
My oldest turned 16 yesterday and, to celebrate, she and I spent three days in New York City touring around and indulging in all of her fantasies. We poked around Barney’s and Bloomingdales, stood with the hordes outside Rockefeller Center and snapped photo after photo of the tree and the ice skaters. We wandered across the campus of Columbia University, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and stood underneath the Manhattan Bridge on a sunny, bright day. We perused the wares at holiday markets from Union Square to Bryant Park and walked through Times Square at night people-watching. Perhaps her favorite experience, though, was seeing Wayne Brady in a production of Kinky Boots. She was hardly able to sit still from excitement and when we stood outside the stage door afterward, shivering, she barely felt the chill in the air. The star himself came out to greet his fans and promptly wrapped her in his wool trench coat and offered her a warm “Happy Birthday!” as I took photos of them together. She floated back to the hotel and couldn’t get to sleep, she was so thrilled.
These moments together, whether they be tiny ones like sharing a delicious snack or huge ones like meeting Wayne Brady, lifted me up to a place I won’t soon come down from. I know that I have only two more years before she is off to college and I see her much less often (especially if she chooses to go to school in New York, which she says she will), and while I feel as though I ought to be sad about that, I was really just very honored to be part of the joy that she had this last weekend. Watching her face light up in a grin as big as I’ve ever seen when she spied the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and hearing her exclamation of bliss at the first bite of New York cheesecake are some of the things I was so lucky to be witness to that I will never forget.
There is a song in Kinky Boots called “Not My Father’s Son” that reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago called The Fallacy of Belonging, where the two lead characters sing about feeling as though they disappointed their fathers because they couldn’t “echo what he’d done.” All of the singing was exquisite, but as I sat and listened to that particular song and turned to watch Eve, I knew in my heart that the best thing I can do for her is to let her travel her own path in life, wherever it leads her. No matter how many instances I can recall that point to our similarities, she is herself, and it is not my place to convince her of anything, to hold her back because I am afraid or don’t understand. My gift to her is to lift her up, help her believe in herself and trust her own gut, and revel in the things that she enjoys and desires. I could no more imagine myself at 16 wanting to go to school in NYC than I could have imagined myself being abducted by aliens, but it doesn’t matter. The simple fact that she and I can share these moments together, with her driving the agenda and feeling free to explore possibilities for her own life means more to me than anything.
On the flight home, I sat next to a woman whose daughter is a senior at Columbia University. She was on her way home from a visit and she confided to me that she never could have prepared herself for how hard it was to have her daughter go away to college (they live in Anchorage, Alaska – almost as far apart as you can get and still be in the same country). She confessed to having gone through a deep depression when her daughter was gone, and said that even now, she visits her 2-3 times a semester just to reconnect. For a moment, I panicked and started to wonder what it might be like for me to have Eve so far away, but then I made a decision to stay in the glow of this weekend. It will probably be very hard for me if she goes across the country to college, but all I have to do is conjure up the memory of how happy she was to be feeling grown up in the big city, exploring all it had to offer, and striking out with a confidence I never had at that age, and I think I can find it in myself to be happy for her. She is not me, and I am so honored to be given the opportunity to see her for who she is without placing my own filters on her. That would only limit her and goodness knows I don’t want to do that. Happy birthday, sweet girl. Thank you for being in my world.
I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don’t “need” it, it doesn’t happen every day.
It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I’m feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it’s been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, “at least I’m not….” If I am comparing my life to someone else’s, as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group” or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, “neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I’m not homeless,” I’m not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.
If I am also making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as they compare to the number of “bad” ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn’t make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.
When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life – there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn’t done something – if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be ‘fixed’ or that don’t meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing – often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I’m in the zone, it really isn’t. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.
It was the freckles. I’m the only one in my house that has them – scattered all down my arms and hands, but as a kid, half of my household had them, and as far as I was concerned, they came from Grandpa. Most of his kids had freckles dotting their faces and arms and hands and many of their kids did, too – my cousins. But I don’t see that side of the family much except on Facebook, so when we flew to California for my cousin’s wedding this weekend and I walked in the door and saw people with freckles, I felt that tug of home, of connection.
There is something about going back to a place that holds so much history for me and spending time there with the people who first introduced me to it. Even though I never lived in that town, I have touchstones there – landmarks and memories that sit steadfast in my head and heart, and somehow I am able to navigate my way from the beach to the zoo to my aunt’s house and back.
Sitting in her living room on Friday night with my cousins, telling the same stories we always tell about the things we did when we saw each other once a year as kids, I felt so strongly a part of something bigger. Every once in a while I glanced at Eve and Lola and was glad they get folded in to this tradition every few years as well. Bubba has been around enough that he slips easily in to the group, trading jokes and recalling some of the same family lore.
On Saturday, when more cousins and aunts and uncles arrived, the chaos felt warm and comfortable. We met up at the beach, greeting new babies and walking in a pack, seamlessly moving between generations as we stopped to gaze at crabs and fish, use the bathroom, reapply sunscreen, talking and laughing easily. In the evening, in a crowd of more than 100 people, we continued the dance, shifting to say hello to more family with firm hugs and slipping into conversations without small talk. This is where I learned to do family – with these people who are smart and stubborn and funny and freckled. This is where I learned that you can disagree and tease and be in a bad mood and still be loved and cherished and celebrated. This is where I began to understand that, even as you display your own quirks and unique personality, you are tied to others by virtue of your similarities – like those freckles or having the gift of gab.
No matter how big this family gets, with weddings and babies born, it will always be strong and solid, cemented by the stories of childhood pranks and the sweet memories of Grandma and Grandpa. As we sat on a bench near the water one day, I looked over and saw my uncle wearing the opal ring that my grandfather used to wear and I felt a warmth, a continuity, a solid foundation behind me. He has the same freckled hands, the same long, graceful fingers, the same generous heart I remember, and when I see him holding his own grandchildren I know that the legacy of love my grandparents started will live on.