For the Bitter and the Sweet

Coffee on the veranda

I pick up my scorched oven mitts off the damp, October ground, leaving flakes of charred material and black soot on the earth to mark the spot. There since midnight, they are a testament to the previous night’s disaster. Bright red cloth contrasting with charcoal black. Stationary, since I threw them out the door, onto the step and then again onto the grass where I proceeded to hose them down until the flames subsided—all after they had caught on fire from the heat emitted from my oven burner. And this: because I had brushed the knob of the burner (ever so gently) as I reached into the cupboard for a bowl. Having sat back down at my computer to type, I was oblivious to the smolder, until smoke began to curl around the cupboard, up toward the ceiling: alerting me to the calamity.

If I had only:
Not wanted a cookie.
Not reached for the bowl.
Not brushed the knob.
Not left the oven mitts on the burner.

If I had only.

Life is wrought with “if onlys”.

This week has been a series of unfortunate events, a series of “if onlys”…or so it seems. There is always something to complicate the day. Be that arriving late for appointments, forgetting appointments, or scheduling too many appointments. Be that day-to-day complications like not enough sleep, sickness and low energy. Be that bigger-than-everyday complications like additional work meetings, late night projects, lost luggage, health concerns, and worries that go deeper than surface level. Add to the list, if you will: parenting issues, relationship issues, marriage issues. Life.

There is just always something.

How can we say thanks when life is just not what we want it to be? How can we say thanks when things are just not how we wish they were? How can we say thanks when we don’t FEEL particularly thankful for everything we’ve been given? Giving thanks for both the little things on our ever filling plate…along with the bigger things that make our lives chaotic and stressful?

Is it even possible?

I wake up in the morning to the smell of the charred remains of the previous day. Add to this, the cheesecake boiled over in the oven last night so I now realize that I have the pleasure of a pre-breakfast, ‘make-work’ project. I can now officially confirm that I will be late for church. And on the very day that I have to lead the singing.

I can feel the resentment rising within. Give thanks for this?

How easily I forget that gratitude is a state of the heart. A choice of the soul embracing life in its fullness, both the bitter and the sweet. Joel Osteen: “One of the main reasons that we lose our enthusiasm in life is because we become ungrateful..we let what was once a miracle become common to us. We get so accustomed to his goodness it becomes a routine..”

Life is hard. Of a truth: it is not easy. But it is always a miracle, a gift to have the opportunity to live.

The air in our lungs.
The roof over our head.
The clothes that cover.
The shoes that fit.
The water we drink.
The food we intake.
For the everyday, commonplace miracles of life.  For both the bitter and the sweet.
We are eternally grateful.

This thanksgiving I offer gratitude for the miracles. Everyday and otherwise. They are what cause me to remember how much I have.

And impress on me how much I must be grateful.

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Wonderings {on gratitude}

What would our prayers be like if we focused them around the things, people and situations in our lives for which we didn’t feel overly grateful? Thanking God for the things we’d sooner we DIDN’T have…rather than asking Him for things we DON’T have and want/desire.

I wonder.

Would we then appreciate more the difficulty and trouble we see as obstacles in our lives, viewing these instead as blessings in disguise? Would it make us more grateful? More appreciative? Would we realize that these difficulties are things that make us and shape us into beautiful people, stretching our hearts so that they can hold more love?

I wonder.

Would that gratitude that was grown and cultivated cause us to give more love? To be love to those around us- even to the ones we are ungrateful for? I truly wonder.

What would happen if we were grateful for things like the following:

Snow and other weather related annoyances
Dirt and mud and soggy grass
Messes (both large and small)
Chores
Work/employment/jobs
Inconveniences (make this one personal)
People who rub us the wrong way
Mundane activities (you name one)
People who offend us
People who challenge us
Financial issues
Health and its challenges
Marriage and its complexity
Relationships and their intricacy
Pain and its hardship
Loss and sorrow

What if the pain in our lives was there to teach us gratitude and how to offer words of thanks for each and every moment we’ve been given…as if everything we’d been given was a gift? For is it not?

We are owed nothing. We come into this world naked. We leave the same way. What happens in between is ours to use as an offering of gratitude, as we can. As we are able. So that we can grow in grace and understanding. So that we can grow in compassion and empathy. So that we can reach out to people in our circles of influence and show those people care. Trouble is here in our lives so as to move us toward something. Might it move us to love? Move us closer toward the Author of gratitude Himself?

Might it cause us to be a grateful people?
Making us mindful of who we are, what we have and what we can give as an outpouring of our gratitude.

Might it open our eyes to a whole new way of living?

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.”― Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

And echoing these beautiful words, I say: I want to be grateful.

For today, for all my tomorrows and for each day that leads towards always, even after that.

Giving is the way to gratefulness

When we count our blessings in the midst of life’s brutal storms, rather than waiting for the sunny days with warmth and light and gentle breezes to appear, it is truly the greater sacrifice. As those watching from without, there is nothing so admirable as observing someone with very little making a great deal about what they do have, however small and humble.

Gratitude can be experienced even when the outlook is dismal, can be presented even when the offering is slight. For even when the pool from which we gather is shallow and lacking in resources, there is still something there.

There is always something in which to be thankful.

It matters not what we’ve been given- we still must find the words to offer thanks.

He was feeling low again- not really in that frame of mind to offer gratitude. Not really in that mode of thinking, really. How can one offer praise when life feels destitute of joy, bereft of common everyday pleasure? He really wasn’t able to pick himself up either, like he sometimes could. Couldn’t rise to the day. It was like he’d been beaten down one too many times and the game was now over. He was ready to throw in the towel.

But she reminded him again of his call to chronicle gratitude. Reminded him of all that he’d already found in which to offer thanks. The five gifts he had committed to finding each and every day- small offerings of gratitude to a Father of good and perfect gifts. And even though it was hard- even though it wasn’t easy, he promised her he would still look for something in which to offer thanks.

And while he was looking for those small five in which to portray his day, something else happened. He started to notice people around him. People just like him, all in need of finding a gift. And as he was noticing people, he began hearing people too. Hearing their hearts, sensing their needs, listening to their stories. And he realized that he could not only count gifts, he could offer them to others as well.

And so he did. He offered a small gift.

And that one, small seemingly insignificant gift- it made all the difference for him. And for her- because she wasn’t expecting it- and to be truthfully honest, neither was he. But because he realized that he was still a giver, still a messenger of hope, he was able to stand in the gap. Even with the limitations of his life and struggle.

Actually, in spite of them.

We all can find gifts- that treasure trove of life that we each have been gifted with. But even more than this, we can all be givers: can give something each day to someone else. We can be the gift. Can be one of the five that another counts as a blessing on their gratitude list. For when we give the gift, rather than merely counting it as acquired, we come to understand:

Giving is the very best way to experience gratitude.

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Offering gratitude

I remember the Christmas I was about seven or eight years old. I wanted a Cabbage Patch doll. It was all I really wanted that year, to be honest. I had made that much clear to anyone who was listening (Mom, Dad, Santa….God?). I think I dreamed about her, my doll: those chubby cheeks, that rag-doll yarn hair. Those two lumpy pig-tails tied with ribbons, along with the signature on her rounded derriere that guaranteed she was truly made by ‘the’ Xavier Roberts. To have a Cabbage Patch doll would have been to have a dream come true. An answer to prayer, even. (I am not sure if I prayed for her, my non-existent dollie- but to think that I might have makes total sense.)

So imagine my surprise when I opened my Christmas gift that year to find a beautiful china doll with porcelain skin staring back at me instead of a dimpled plastic one. This replacement other- this actual doll was a fine toy complete with dark, wavy hair, finely stitched Victorian dress and a velvety blue bonnet that just never would stay put on that her head. She was lovely, but she wasn’t a Cabbage Patch Kid.

I don’t remember feeling very thankful.

What I do remember was receiving that doll and the disappointment I felt. She was beautiful, elegant and far more of a classic in comparison to the trendy Cabbage Patch doll I craved. But she wasn’t what I asked for. I felt quietly disappointed about the whole thing.

Years later, I find myself still asking. Only this time, my requests aren’t as trivial and innocent.

“Please God, protect them…” “Please God, allow rest…” Please God bring healing…” “Please God, more time…” “Please God….please.” Sometimes the litany of request feels like a shopping list of needs that I rhyme off- with hopes that I will get everything on my list. But what if what I am asking for is no longer in stock? What if it is not available at this time? What if what I am asking for is something not the very best for me- nor the very best for those for whom I am requesting that certain something? What is best, anyway? Do I even know?

What if prayer was less a list of ‘please give…’ and more of an “I thank you…”? What would prayer be like then? Would it change?

Our lives are full of blessings. Some of those blessings come through rays of sunshine and hope. Some of the blessings come through tears and storm clouds. But through the joyous moments and through the difficult times, there are slices of time when light shines through and we see the absolute beauty in life. Yes, our lives are precious in all their complexity- even in the midst of absolute darkness and sorrow, beams of light will radiate.

These little moments for me can be seen as answers to prayer. True, these little blessings are not always the big ticket items on my proverbial prayer shopping list- sometimes they are just those little somethings I noticed out of the corner of my eye. The little things. Things like…

• A friend stopping by to say they are thinking of me
• A phone call just when I needed it
• A message, email or note
• A smile timed just right
• A hug
• A drive to Tim’s
• A rainbow
• My flowers blooming
• A found kitten

The little things in life are sometimes what bring the greatest joy in my darkest hour. They are what get me through.

I have been asking God for some pretty big-ticket items lately. I have a feeling a few of us might be in this same boat. But I wonder if we have sometimes forgotten how to pray gratitude into our prayers. To thank instead of ask. To offer gratitude.

To thank God for the gift of time- what a precious commodity that is. To thank God for the gift of memories- we have such precious recollections of the ones we love- even as we make new memories each and every day. To be grateful for each moment we’ve been given. Even for today. To just relish the very minutes we have right now and breathe a prayer of thanks for this priceless gift.

We are so blessed.

Our lives may seem complex, complicated, rushed, maddening, stressful, anxious and short. But viewed through a different lens, they can also be seen as beautiful, intricate, intense and precious. Our lives are a masterpiece- and this life is only the beginning.

For every breath we’ve been given, our grateful hearts say “thanks”.

The Art of Appreciation

I was reading a blog the other day that gave kudos to teachers, in support of Teacher Appreciation Week. It talked about the work that teachers do and acknowledged teachers and educational assistants as doing important, worthwhile things, in both academic and other areas, so as to support children and young people in their growth, learning and development. It talked a lot about the little unnoticed things that teachers do, things that often fall below the radar as far as visibility. It was a nice article- it made you feel good to read it.

Particularly if you were a teacher.

And then I scrolled through the comments.

And as I did, I came across some negative feedback- as there so often is- to counter the opinions of the author. Comments placed there so as to undermine the author’s attempts at acknowledging her intended audience: teachers. Comments placed there to whine about why other groups of people hadn’t been thanked. Comments placed there to diminish the efforts of individuals committed to their calling and willing to make sacrifices so as to continue doing so. They were rather hurtful comments to read, whether one was a teacher or not.

I am a teacher. But these comments didn’t irk me because I am a teacher. They irked me because I am a human being. A person with a desire to continually acknowledge the best in people and thus see and commend the value of other human beings in service, whomever those individuals might be. And I do this, quite often, through the art of appreciation. Which is to say: I try to watch others. And whatever they might be doing or saying or being matters to me. So much so, that I try to extend to them, as often as I can, a word of appreciation. Thanks and gratitude. It’s not rocket science- but it is pretty important stuff: actually, it’s how I was taught to be by my own gracious mother. So I continue to do so as often as I can. And it is what I now teach the next generation to do as well- my students and four children as well.

It’s quite easy really. Appreciate people. Tell them once in a while what they mean to you. Carry on and repeat.

Couldn’t be simpler.

But I am finding, at times, that this ability of ours as people, to appreciate others: it is passed over in favor of the all-important critique. It is more trendy to critique someone on their performance, abilities or job and less favorable to find the best about them instead. It is more interesting to find fault. Less interesting to build up. More interesting to point fingers rather than to join hands.

As a result, we are losing much, not the least of which is a dying art. That is, the art of appreciating people and things and ideas. The ability to recognize possibility. Particularly, the potential in another human being and then acknowledge that same person for their endeavours. I think that we as people can never do enough appreciating in this life. And it certainly should never come at the expense of a lost opportunity taken instead to undermine another human being’s worthy attempts at celebrating other human beings for their efforts.

Appreciation matters.

My students had a tea party for their mother’s today. It is my third annual tea party for mothers. I once also threw a pizza party for fathers. It is possibly in the works again for this year. The point of me telling this is because the whole event is organized so that my students can take time to think about and reflect on their parents and the hard work they do at raising them. The important work they do in loving them. And thus come to appreciate them a little more. We spend time thinking about what parents do. How they look after us. How they provide for us. We take time to thank them. We sing songs in praise of them. We prepare things that we know they will like and then we serve them. We let them eat and drink first, for a change. In short, we take time to honor their legacy.

It’s very important work- and not just for five and six years olds. It just might be some of the most significant work I do with my students all year. I take it very seriously.

What I am trying to say here is this: we need to instill in our children, our young people and thus in adults as well, the value of appreciation. The worth of acknowledgment. The importance of telling people what they mean to us. The art of appreciation.

Not because we as receivers of this praise need it so as to shore up our self esteem.
Not because we are needy of accolades.
Not because we can’t function unless we have a set number of compliments.
Not for our egos.

But for our souls. Because quite simply, we matter.

No matter what we do we matter. That’s because people matter.

And because our person matters: our contributions thus matter, our influence matters and our legacy matters.

And when we are told as much, it causes us to want to do the same for another human being, starting a chain of appreciation to begin to form.
One can only imagine what ways this world could change with such a chain. Such a possibility for seeing worth in the world around us.
It is quite simply the power that is the art of appreciation.

And I believe that when we appreciate, there is no end to the possibilities for hope.

It’s just that influential.

I am so very grateful…

Gratitude: it’s a matter of the heart.

I could speak of the day.  Gorgeous, crisp autumn chill.  Leaves pattern the dying grass.  Down a heritage road, I can see for a mile a canopy of tree branches laden down with hues of gold, crimson, burnt orange: deep and rich.  Air pungent with earthy undertones.  The smell of wood freshly sawed.  The fragrant scent of evergreen.  The splendid aromas of the great outdoors.

I could speak of the day.  Family gathered round an aging table- passed down from those who broke bread in bygone years.  The heady mix of turkey dinner with all the fixins’: whipped potatoes, cinnamon-infused carrot coins, sweet potato smothered in maple syrup and pecans, green bean casserole topped with crunchy, fried onions.  Devilled eggs as light as a feather.  Rolls and beets and pickles and pistachio salad.  Ruby red cranberry sauce.  Gravy, still simmering in the saucepan on the stove.  I could speak of this.

I could speak of the day.  A walk through the woods.  Gentle winding paths leading to steeper terrain.  Still, silent groves of trees that could tell a story or two.  A lush patch of ivy wound tightly in amongst a hardwood stand.  A huge tree bent over in growth to give the shape of a rainbow. I could speak of all this.

I could speak of the road, hidden away off the beaten track.  Trees bent as if to conceal a secret.  I could speak of the grey chipmunk that scurried across the way, unnoticed by the others.  Of the laughter that silly poses can bring when the camera is still and waiting.  I could speak of giggles and squeals and happy voices. I could speak yet again of all this and more.

We have so much of which to speak.

And yet, it’s those little moments of frustration that cause our vision to become unfocused.  That cause us to lose perspective.  And we forget how much we have.  In a moment of worry or fear or anger or frustration or annoyance or despair or sorrow: we forget.  We forget how much we really have.

I speak tonight of that which I am so very grateful: for those moments in my day wherein I can stop and listen to the heart.  For moments when I can see the mistakes I have made and still find the clarity and wherewithal to mend my wrongs.  I am thankful for the circumstances in my life which have smoothed out rough edges in my soul, like sand polishing a piece of sea glass. I am thankful that life is not perfect.  That happiness is not the goal. And that contentment is not dependent on what I have or don’t have.  I am grateful for the things in my life that make me stronger, wiser, and more intuitive to matters of the heart and soul.

I am thankful for all those event and happenings and defining moments of my life that have shaped me to become the person I am today.  I am grateful that my life is a story and that the Author of this story is not finished with it yet.  I am beyond grateful that he is the Author of all stories told about grace and mercy and joy and compassion.  All stories told about hope and love and renewal and contentment.  I am grateful that He weaves in themes of beauty even in the presence of  themes on pain and struggle and anguish and sorrow.  He writes in joy, for joy always follows sorrow.  Always follows darkness and night.  Joy comes in the morning.

I am so very grateful for Hands that hold.  I am grateful that I am not alone in the journey.  I am grateful, so very grateful.

I could speak tonight of all that I’ve been given, for I have been given much.  But instead I will offer just one word: thanks.

Thanks for giving me a story.  I am so very grateful.

Why say thanks?

Lights dimmed, a lone candle lit.  All is warm and cozy, safe and sound.  The Little One and I snuggle under plush covers, heads touching on the pillow. Her fine baby hair spreads fan-like, soft tendrils all around. So light.  So easy to be a child.  And yet.

I just feel heavy beside her.  But still I listen to prayers.  Looking, as ever for gratitude in the offerings.  She utters words and so do I.  But my heart is just not in it tonight.  Not in the thankfulness-spirit of it all.

I’m struggling.

How can we be thankful in everything?

I mean, really.  Everything?  You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

I have to stop and share this story.

We arrive for a sleepover, the three girls and I.   My family’s home place, warm and inviting on a bitterly- cold, January evening.   I climb the staircase and round the kitchen corner to find Mom’s water cooler in two pieces, a towel under the floor next to the spot where the container had previously sat atop the base.  The over-sized jug stands, stark naked on the middle of the table, half full of water.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Oh,” she says with a tired voice.  I came home this morning after having been away for a few hours to find the kitchen full of water.  Everywhere, water.”

She tells me of the arduous process of cleaning it all up.  Of taking every piece of china out of the cabinet so as to pull the huge piece of furniture away from the wall.  Of cleaning the leaking mess all around the baseboards and behind every table and cupboard that might move.  Of the hassle this undoubtedly was.

And then she says this.

“And to think.  I had just told Him (my brother) the other day how much I loved that water cooler, and how good the water tasted!  And now.  It’s gone.  Just like that.”

We talked for a bit about the ways in which this seems to happen quite often to her, dear Mom.  And we both got to thinking of particular stories just lately in which Mom has specifically lost something dear to her heart that she had made a point of being thankful for.  For instance.  The time when she had just finished saying a little prayer of thanks for the small electric heater in her bedroom that had been given to her as a gift.  And then literally, five minutes later, it made a noise and blew a fuse.

And that was the end of that little luxury.

Or this one.  The day last fall when my mother was caring for some of her six grandbabies and the older ones took an hour to run wildly through the field behind her house.  And so did she.  And when she stopped to catch her breath, in those precious moments in which this special memory transpired, she stopped to also say a quick prayer that went something like this: “Thank you God that I can still run with my grandkids, and that I have the energy to move in this way.”  And how not long after, she hit her leg hard on a bench in her home and injured it permanently.  So that she has never been able to run again in this manner.

And to think.  She had just stopped to breathe a prayer of gratitude for this also.

Mom jokingly added this thought: “That’s why I never say thanks to God for my four children! (who knows what would happen if I did?)”

She jests.  Of course she does, say ‘thanks’.

But what of the Others who do so also?  Those Significant Others in my life who have said countless ‘thanks’ for that precious of all gifts, a child, only to lose that very gift of which they uttered words of gratitude.  That Father awakened at midnight by two police officers telling him that his beloved daughter had been in a car crash and was now gone into eternity.  That Mother also receiving her bitter news, only this time it was a daughter maimed and her near–to-birth baby in utero, dead.   That Man who loved his job but lost it, all because of Parkinson’s.  That Boy who lost his eyesight.  That Girl who sits day after day in a wheel chair, only to have food trickle out of her mouth even as someone spoons it in, her eyes crusted over from infection.  Her head indented from where the snow plow blade sliced skin and bone.

These all.  Prayed over, and with thankful hearts, beloved.  But life, and love and livelihood taken anyway.  Even in the midst of gratitude and thankfulness.

The questions pile over and over in my head, tumbling in a free fall as if they have reached a precipice and due to forces of nature, have fallen over the edge.  And so might I, sometime.  But for the grace of God.

And all these questions beg an even greater question.  Were these people, these things, this precious stuff of which we make our lives so wonderful and rich, were they ever ours to begin with?  And is anything ever really ours?  Do we hold in our possession any thing, any one?  Can we lay claim to anything…ever?  What can we hold as our own?

Job 1:18-21 (NIV)

“While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.  It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!  At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head.  Then he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I am not Job.  Nor do I have the wisdom of Solomon.  Neither am I a staunch gratitude champion or a simple idealist.  But when I think about gratefulness, I think that this thankful-spiritedness means this: acknowledging what I have (nothing), what I owe (everything) and why I am grateful (because all of life, from the brevity to the length of it, from the richness to the poverty of it, from the joy to the sorrow of it, it is all His).

And because all of life is a gift, I am grateful.  And even in this one small thing, in the acknowledgement of so great a truth, we can give thanks.  Even when the asking is hard.  And even when the answers never come.