Grant Us the Grace

After I told my mother I didn’t like the dress she made me for Christmas because it was corduroy, not velveteen, she turned and left the room without speaking. Years later, she told me she didn’t respond angrily because she knew a reprimand would allow me to resent her rather than thinking about my own rude and hurtful words.

Dad’s union was on strike, and money was tight, something I usually understood and accepted; but my teenaged self was focused on envy of the fashionable red-velveteen dress Santa had delivered to my best friend.

I saw my mother’s disappointment and hurt before she turned away, but mired in envious misery, I didn’t try to make things right. Later, after sulking in my room, I came to my senses, found her folding laundry, and choked out, “I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” she said. “I’m not sorry that I can’t give you everything you want, because that isn’t how life works, but I am sorry that you can’t see all you have.”

I thought of Mom’s statement a few weeks ago when a television commentator said that rather than pushing Thanksgiving aside in our rush to get started on Christmas, we should savor the simplicity of the November holiday and call on its spirit of gratitude throughout the coming season.

So this year, during the busy buildup to December 25th, I’m going to notice simple pleasures, open myself to them, and remember all I have.

I invite you to join me.

We’ll enjoy the red-cheeked exuberance of small children as they happy-dance in store aisles and gaze in round-eyed wonder at Christmas trees filled with light. We’ll smile at how angelic our young ones look as they perform in holiday concerts, how happy they seem as they race home from school with decorations and cards they created; how thoughtfully they debate the number of cookies to leave for Santa.

We’ll sing carols with messages and melodies that have resonated through the ages, concentrating until their hopeful words envelop us and carry us back to the time when we sang “Silent Night” with all the belief and love of our young hearts.

We’ll read traditional Christmas stories to ourselves and others and respond to the lines we well know: Santa’s exclamation as he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight,” Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone!” and the simple but compelling words of the Bible, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

If Christmas Eve brings us a calm night when the trees are wrapped in frosty lace, the snow sparkles with frozen crystals, and every star in the heavens is visible, we’ll take the time to bundle up and walk outdoors to search for the Star of the East and listen as the glory of the night whispers our blessings.

My wish is that all of us will be granted the grace to enjoy the Christmas we have —not the ones others are having or the one we wanted to have — the grace to find beauty in the simple, the grace of understanding that the best days are filled with small wonders.


Lesser Blessings

Cornucopia border

One year during Thanksgiving dinner, between the blessing on the food and the passing of the turkey, Mom asked us to express gratitude: “Mention something meaningful,” she said with a stern look at Dad, “Don’t talk about pumpkin pie or being grateful your belt expands.”

We started strong. We talked about good health, our grandparents, and Lawrence home from Korea; then Blaine piped up: “At this moment, I’m most thankful I didn’t have to sit by JL.”

In memory of Blaine’s mettle, I’ve devoted this column to an appreciation of my lesser blessings:

I’m thankful I no longer wear pantyhose. In my twenties I endured run-prone nylons held up by the garters of a girdle so tight it discouraged breathing. For the next several decades I waddled around with the waistband of poorly fit pantyhose bisecting my hips. When I tried elastic-topped thigh-highs, they lost their grip, slipped, and bunched attractively around my ankles. Happiness is retirement and wool socks.

Next, I’m glad to see cursive writing go the way of the Edsel. I used to ponder the alphabet charts demonstrating perfect cursive formation that marched around my grade-school classrooms; and I practiced their outlined moves diligently during daily handwriting drills—parades of capital Q’s that wobbled and grew increasingly misshapen. But I never mastered the proportions, loops, and slants necessary to earn a penmanship star. Computers saved me. Since their advent, I rarely have to clutch a pen in a thumb-numbing grip to scratch out text I can’t decipher two minutes later.

I’m also thankful for the many napping experiences of my past: marvelous minutes stretching out in a recliner, curling up on a couch, squashing my face against a car window, or bobbing my head about in an airplane. I’m no longer able to casually drift into a nap, so such memories are precious. These days, when I grow drowsy after lunch and lie down for a snooze, I twitch with anxiety until I force myself to leap up and dash about doing something — anything— because I know if I give in, I’ll be up at night, ranting about my inability to sleep.

Coffee deserves my gratitude. No matter what time I get out of bed, it’s too early. I breathe a sigh of relief when I manage to force my feet to the floor, because I know I’ve accomplished the most difficult task I’ll face all day. Such courage should be rewarded by fifteen to thirty minutes of silent staring, but Joel, a chirping morning lark, doesn’t get it. Coffee helps.

Finally, I’m thankful for a plucky rose we inherited when we bought our house. We’ve transplanted it numerous times, and each time we do, it rallies to produce a single bud that is destroyed by deer looking for a snack before it blooms. The next year, it tries again.

Each spring, I watch for life in this rose, and my heart sings when I see it.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

About Self Improvement

vintage art courtesy of The Stock Solution

Courtesy of The Stock Solution

I sometimes promise to improve, but never on New Year’s Day when my brain, sluggish from too much merriment, hatches dubious goals. In 1955, I pledged to quit making resolutions for the coming year after a gluttonous vow to save candy for a year and eat it for Christmas nearly killed me and made a thief of my younger sister.

But contemplating self-improvement makes me feel virtuous.

So periodically, I determine to do better: I’ll smile patiently when a meeting goes into overtime rather than noisily packing up my stuff and staring pointedly at the clock. I’ll never be too tired to brush my teeth, and when Joel wants to know what’s for dinner, I won’t snappishly reply, “The same thing I told you the last two times you asked.”

Usually I fail miserably at my personal-improvement pledges. This year alone I’ve flunked organized closets, small servings, and deep breathing. However, last June I made a small change I’d recommend to all those seeking self-perfection during the coming year: each night, I think of three good things about my life or the day.

The author of the article where I discovered the idea of daily appreciations anticipated my slip-shod nature by adding that I shouldn’t repeat the same items every night; but I could use variations on a theme. On Tuesday, I could think, “It’s nice to have strong arches,” and on Wednesday, “I’m glad I’m not bothered by bunions.”

At first, my nightly struggles to appreciate five things led to sleep-deprivation, which seemed a poor way to achieve stress-free living. So I cut the requirement to three and regained my composure.

My appreciations sometimes lack sophistication: “I’m glad I made lump-less gravy” or “No one laughed when I tripped over that toddler.” Some nights I fall asleep before I get started, and others I’m so grumpy I give myself a pass—the only good decision of the day.

But most nights, I quickly think of three small happinesses: the crow that chided me for invading his territory, Joel’s laughter when I described the bird’s indignant behavior, and a vine-ripened tomato handed across the backyard fence by neighbors we’re fortunate to have.

I seem to sleep more easily and awaken more optimistically when I reflect for a few moments about the pleasures of my day.

Finally, I’ve managed to make and keep a worthwhile resolution.

Please tell me about
a resolution you’ve made
and kept — or not.