The key to being able to truly feel gratitude is to want less and accept more. I say this, of course, after already having lived a life that has been abundant with many things but knowing that it’s possible and common to have great material and intangible riches and still carry a backpack crammed with dissatisfaction.
At the root of dissatisfaction and, in my mind, the inability to feel gratitude is comparison. When we compare our lives to the imagined greatness of other people’s lives, the gap we feel sits like the old, grimy shovel next to my grandmother’s coal bin, ready to pile fuel on to the constant ember of our own self-doubt.
When I was a single mother, I would make Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because my daughter always went to her father’s on Thanksgiving day. Sometimes there was a boyfriend with us on those Wednesdays and sometimes we were alone, either way we did the whole drill – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the pie. This is what my mother did, this is what I would do, no matter that it was just me and a 6-year old at the kitchen table in our upper flat in Shorewood.
Taking care of Thanksgiving on Wednesday meant that Thursday could be totally devoted to self-pity, driving up and down Lake Drive, looking at the beautiful houses with dining room chandeliers casting yellow light over tables full of food and glittering crystal. Sometimes I could see people milling around, drinks in hand, chatting, and I would wonder what happened to my life that I was driving around on Thanksgiving looking at people’s windows and envying their happiness? Then, I’d head to Open Pantry, buy a six-pack of Miller Lite and a bag of Fritos and go home to wallow.
There was nothing about that period of Thanksgiving misery that told me that things would get better. I never envisioned getting married again or having more children, nor having a fancy house or hosting lovely dinners. I envisioned a lifetime as a spectator of other people’s happiness, existing in a state of perpetual envy and want. I would forever be a person on the sidewalk, never one inside the house.
Of course, my life did change – I married a wonderful man and, much to my surprise but consistent with what a palm reader had once told me, had three more children. We celebrated double holidays – Jewish and Christian – so soon the buffet drawers were crammed with Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah candles. We needed to add the leaves in the table to get everyone seated and sometimes guests would have to eat in shifts. There was no room to move at some of our Hanukkah celebrations. We put the lit Menorah in the front window and seeing it there aflame with the candles’ reflection in the window, I remembered myself being on the outside looking in. So this is how it was to be inside.
But every year is different. We’ve had two Thanksgivings with children in the hospital, one so very bleak that I hauled my consultant’s easel and markers into the kitchen and insisted that everyone write one thing they were grateful for. The paper was blank at the end of the day. That year I imagined again that everyone was happier, that their families were healthier and that I might as well be on the street driving by for all the envy I was feeling about others’ good fortune. There was the year my mother-in-law told us about the illness that would take her life just nine months later; the only year my dear but anti-Semitic parents came to our house to have Thanksgiving dinner with my new, Jewish husband; the years with kids gone – abroad or adrift; and the worst ever, Thanksgiving as guests at other people’s houses, a double crummy – feeling ill at ease and having no leftovers. The big, hearty years with the table packed with people left me exhausted but triumphant, put me at the pinnacle of what I’d imagined happy people doing. The smaller, difficult Thanksgivings put me back on the sidewalk, sad for myself and envying everyone else.
Then, at some point and without notice, it stopped. The torture of comparison, of thinking I was worse off or better off than others, of feeling outside or inside, of living as a spectator in my own life just ended.
Without any conscious thought, I knew I had adopted my mother’s adage to want what you have. And then mysteriously, I’d added to it my own adage to accept what it is.
Right now, it’s 2:45 on Thanksgiving Day. I have a very large turkey in the oven and a pumpkin pie on the counter. There might be two, three, four, or five people for dinner. One daughter is in Madison with her husband’s family, a son is working second shift, greeting people as the doorman at a downtown hotel. There’ve been some changes in their relationships adding to the reduction in numbers. We won’t have to use the kitchen chairs or the piano bench to get everyone seated. This time the wine glasses might actually all match.
It could be tempting to feel that this holiday isn’t going to measure up and glimmers of that hit me while we walked our dogs this afternoon but that’s not really how I feel.
I’m thinking it’s good, it’s what I have, it’s what it is. I want this and accept it. And I am grateful. Plus there’ll be more leftovers.
What could possibly be finer?