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A few nights before Christmas Randy saw a mouse run behind the Christmas tree. We were not terribly surprised, since our exterminator has been telling us for years that he’s seen mice droppings outside in our utility closet and under our stove and we’ve hired people to plug the holes that the mouse is getting through. Apparently these efforts have not worked. So the exterminator came out and put several traps between our book cases near where the mouse was spotted. On the one hand, I feel no particular ill will toward a little mouse, except I didn’t want him (or her) leaving toxic poop around our house, or eating our Christmas presents. So the traps were set and smeared with peanut butter. Yesterday when her friends were over, Zoe showed them the traps and told them to be careful and not touch them, and explained, “They have peanut butter on them because mice are attracted to peanut butter.”
Tonight while I was serving Zoe her dinner I spotted a mouse by one of the traps. I wasn’t sure if it was in the trap or just approaching it, so I asked Randy to investigate. Of course, when Randy went to investigate, so did Zoe. Randy determined that the mouse, was, in fact, deceased. He decided he wanted to eat dinner before dealing with the body. I found a plastic container big enough for the mouse and the trap.
After dinner Zoe asked if she could watch while Randy collected the mouse and the trap. I wanted to be as far away as possible. But Zoe observed it all very calmly. When I put her to bed she asked a few questions–why it was ok to throw away a plastic container. She’s very into recycling these days. She said she’d never seen a real live mouse before. I didn’t point out that she actually still hadn’t. She didn’t seem excited or upset, just dispassionately interested. I was feeling kind of guilty and creeped out and concerned that she was going to ask a lot of probing questions about life and death. But she didn’t. Yet.
The other morning Zoe and I went to St. Elmo’s, which is Zoe’s favorite coffee shop because they have toys. While we had breakfast she checked out the dolls (and asked me to babysit, so she could go to a coffee shop) and stuffed animals and games and books. St. Elmo’s is a popular place for parents and kids, and soon a youngish mom came in with her toddler and infant and their grandmother. They sat near us in the toy corner, and were soon joined by friends who had come to meet them. We chatted briefly but mostly I was attending to Zoe. I overheard the grandmother tell the friend that the baby was just shy of a month old. I asked the mom how old the big brother was and she said 21 months. She said “They’re too close together, it was poor planning,” with a smile that suggested she’d made the comment many times before.
My first reaction was to think how could she possibly be unhappy about having two perfect little people, even if they were a handful at the moment. Since we’ve been trying for nearly three years to bring another person into our family, it’s hard for me to imagine having a baby as anything but a wondrous miracle. But I just smiled.
We were sitting so close together it was impossible for me not to feel like a part of their conversation. So a little while later, I heard the mom telling her friend about a mix-up related to her husband’s recent homecoming. He’d sent her a message about what flight he was coming in on, but not the date, and she’d gone to the airport a day early. She was prepared to return the following day and then he ended up catching an earlier flight. He called her from the airport to say he’d arrived earlier than expected, and she offered to come get him right away, but he said he’d take a cab. “You can’t take a taxi home from war!” she told him, but he said she was busy with the boys and he did, in fact, take a taxi.
So my thinking about her situation immediately changed. Her husband had been at war, somewhere, and she had been dealing with this newborn baby plus a not-yet-two-year-old on her own (and perhaps with her mom, but not with their dad) for at least a month. Definitely tough. But, I thought, at least he’s home now. So that’s good.
Then her friend asked if it went well during the time the dad was home. “We had a really great two weeks,” she said. Then he left again. “We’ll see him again in August.”
Wow. This changed my perspective completely. Where I was jealous of her and her two kids a few minutes earlier, I sure wasn’t anymore. I so want another baby, but I am so very thankful that my husband lives at home with Zoe and me all the time. I am grateful that he’s not in danger every day. Eavesdropping at a coffee shop can be humbling. Everyone has their stuff. Some joyful and some really tough.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas and Hanukkah this year I thought a lot about whether we were overdoing it for Zoe. And, if we were, if excessive gift-giving was going to turn Zoe into the most dreaded of all childhood creatures: a spoiled brat.
There is an intense gift-giving tradition in my family. And I understand where it comes from. When my mom was growing up, her parents, though very loving, did not have a lot of spare cash and they were not extravagant people. My mom and her siblings received a lot of practical gifts and there was one Christmas after which (I apologize if I’m not getting the story completely right, but I’m confident that the idea is accurate) my mom had to sacrifice the new doll she had received to donate to an orphan of a far-away war. And my mom, unlike my child, did not have a whole family of dolls waiting in the wings. She probably just had the one.
So as a result, when my mom grew up and started earning enough money to give nice presents, that’s exactly what she did. And when my sister and I were born, my mom wanted to make sure we were lavished with the kind of generosity and plenty that she didn’t experience as a child. It makes sense.
Add into the mix that my dad is Jewish so we also grew up celebrating Hanukkah and we received that many more presents come December.
So it also makes sense (I think) that I wanted to replicate for Zoe the amazing holiday celebrations I enjoyed as a child, and the wonder of Santa and the generous spirit of the season. But Zoe has something that I did not, which is my mom as a grandparent, as well as two more sets of generous grandparents and many aunts and uncles who also love to shower her with gifts. Obviously I am thankful that Zoe has all these people in her life (and the people are clearly more important than what they give her materially). But all this makes for a lot of gifts and a lot of stuff.
I am not going to attempt to stop anyone from giving Zoe presents. It wouldn’t be kind or fair. I understand the joy of choosing a present for someone you love, and it’s especially easy to find presents for a girl such as Zoe who is fascinated by so much in the world. But at the same time I have to find a way to keep my child and my house from being completely overwhelmed by possessions. I understand the dangers from my own experience of not taking good care of your stuff or losing important things because you have so much you can’t keep track of it. I don’t want her to think, “oh, I can just throw this doll into the mud because I have another dozen waiting for me at home.”
I also want Zoe to understand how lucky she is to have what she has. Every year before Christmas and before her birthday we go through her toys and find things to get rid of. There’s plenty of stuff she doesn’t play with that often. If there are things she’s outgrown that we really really really love, we can keep them for our future hypothetical baby. Other things we give away. This year we filled a giant trash bag with little toys that we gave to a friend who is a teacher and she gives them as prizes to her students. We filled a giant box with stuffed animals to send to kids who have been through natural disasters or other tragedies and could use someone to hug. We brought new toys to one of my clients that was collecting them for families in its programs to “buy” for their kids. I brought Zoe with me downtown to drop them off, explaining how some kids don’t have any or many toys and we were giving some nice ones to those kids so they could enjoy them at Christmas. We brought books to the book drive at school and toys to the toy drive at school. I have never been known for subtlety.
So sometime during this season Zoe was playing toy store. She was pretending to be the owner of a toy store she had created by setting up a scene with her tiny toys at the dining room table. She had the little creatures coming in to buy toys for their even littler creature children. And she said one reason she liked being a toy shop owner was that every Sunday she gave away toys for free to kids and families who didn’t have any. I was glad to know my message had been received.
In the same vein, we spent the afternoon at the National Building Museum one day this week. In the Building Zone, a special area for young kids to play, Zoe donned safety goggles and an orange construction vest and set to work building a house out of faux bricks. She announced that it was a house for a family that didn’t have one. I guess we’d been talking about Habitat for Humanity. I helped her build the house. It also featured a place where police, animals, and postal workers could go.
As long as we have generous family members (which I hope will be forever) Zoe will get a lot of presents. I don’t want her to think she’s entitled or take all this great stuff for granted. But I think as long as I have anything to do with it, she will also understand how important it is to give and to share what she has. I think that’s the best I can do.
I am thankful for my daughter, even though she woke me up twice during the night and spent a lot of time glaring at me this morning while she was busy not getting dressed and ready for school. I am thankful for her curiosity and wit. I am thankful for her intelligence and insight. I am thankful for her empathy and kindness. I am thankful for her kisses and hugs and affectionate nature. I am thankful for her imagination and cleverness. I am thankful that she is flexible and adaptable. I am thankful for the time we spend together and the conversations we have. I am thankful that she is willing to give some of her toys to kids who don’t have many. I am thankful that she is a good eater and generally healthy. I am thankful that she makes friends easily and tries to be brave even when she is terrified.
I am thankful for my husband, who is unbelievably kind to and patient with me, whether or not I deserve it. I am thankful that he gets me. I am thankful that he is fun and silly. I am thankful that he always wants to learn more and figure things out and improve himself. I am thankful that he helps. I am thankful that he’s an incredibly devoted dad. I am thankful that he plans mystery dates for us and they’re always fun. I am thankful that he gives me massages. I am thankful that he finds hilarious the same things I do. I am thankful that we are evenly matched at board games. I am thankful that he is insanely passionate about music and that he has taught me about classical music and shared beautiful works with me. I am thankful that he has made me a soccer fan. I am thankful that he has supported me in running my business even though it hasn’t always been easy for us. I am thankful that he is always there for me.
I am thankful for my family, with whom I am terrifically fortunate to be close and have wonderful relationships with. My parents, my sister, and my brother-in-law all now live within a few miles and it is wonderful to all be together whenever we want instead of just at Christmas. I am thankful to have always had a positive relationship with my sister, as it’s evolved from me thinking I’m her second mother to two adults who share challenges and joys. I am thankful that my parents did a good job raising us and continue to support us in any way that we possibly need as we are adults. I am thankful that they have such a close relationship with Zoe and that she has been able to spend so much time with them. I am thankful they have helped with her so much so I can work or we can go on dates. I am thankful for everything my parents have shared with me and taught me and how they do not judge me and they do not tell me what to do.
I am thankful for my friends. I have not often had a best friend as an adult or a tight little group of friends, which I have sometimes lamented. But I do have wonderful, kind, generous, fun, nurturing friends who I am proud to have in my life. I have friends from elementary school and high school and college and various places I’ve worked, and churches I’ve belonged to, and Zoe’s preschool, friends who started out as clients, and friends who I’ve met through other friends. I am thankful for their love and whatever time we get to spend together, even though it’s not as much as we used to. I have friends of all ages. I am thankful for friends who trust me and friends who listen and friends who’ve brought food in hard times and friends who I could bring food to. I am thankful for meals with friends and emails from friends and friends who I hardly ever see but who I still keep in my heart always.
I am thankful for my work. I have known I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. I thought I would be a journalist because it runs in my family, but it turns out that wasn’t the right track for me. I have also always volunteered for nonprofits, since high school. Somehow I never knew you could work for nonprofits until after college. My entire career has been spent writing for nonprofits, and for the past seven years I have been lucky enough to run my own business helping nonprofits tell their stories. I love what I do. I love the variety. I love the people I work with who work like crazy to serve others. I love learning about the excellent work they’re doing on behalf of people who really need help. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to combine my love of writing with my love of service. I am also thankful my husband has a regular job so that the erratic cashflow that comes with being a freelance writer doesn’t keep us from paying our bills.
I am thankful for the practice of gratitude.
We have a book by Douglas Wood called The Secret of Saying Thanks. It lives on Zoe’s bookshelf, but it may have been ours (like many books, toys, and stuffed animals in our house, including Zoe’s beloved dog Ralph, who was mine before Zoe existed) before Zoe came into the world. Either way, we all love it. Every time we read it, we cry. Or at least Randy and I do. Zoe just looks at us with a funny expression on her face and pats our arms.
Anyway, The Secret of Saying Thanks follows a little girl and her dog as they observe the the mysterious beauty of the natural world, the creatures who inhabit it, and the people who care for them. In the end–and you might think this is cheesy, but so what–Wood writes,
The heart that gives thanks is a happy one,
for we cannot feel thankful and unhappy at the same time.
The more we say thanks, the more we find to be thankful for.
And the more we find to be thankful for, the happier we become.
We don’t give thanks because we’re happy.
We are happy because we give thanks.
I know Wood did not come up with this idea himself, but I believe it bears repeating and hearing again and again.
When Randy and I are feeling depressed or overwhelmed or completely unsure about everything, we often ask each other to come up with three or five or (if it’s a really bad day) 10 things we are thankful for. It is easy (at least for us) to become completely undone by life. We have demanding careers, we are raising a child, we have health issues, and we have family and friends who all have challenges of their own and our hearts are big and prone to breaking out of love and empathy. I am amazed at how grounding it is, and what relief it affords me, when I force myself to be thankful instead of anxious.
On the second day of November I noticed on Facebook that a friend of mine (who used to be one of my youth leaders back when I was a Presbyterian zealot in high school–she’s now a Presbyterian pastor) was expressing something she was thankful for on Facebook every day during the month, as a longer celebration of Thanksgiving. I thought this was a great idea, so I adopted it. Several other friends did the same.
I found this exercise to be totally uplifting. Like everyone else, I’ve had good days and bad days over the past month. Sometimes days were wonderful and it was easy to think of several things for which I was grateful. Other days it was a struggle. Certainly there are the obvious gratitudes of family and friends that are constant, but sometimes you get mad or frustrated with the people you love and don’t want to think about them at all. But I found that every single day when I was exhausted or unhappy about something, the process of making myself seek gratitude made me feel at least a little better. I’m serious. And doing it every day for a month has made it a habit. For example, the first phone call I got today at 9am was from the car dealership, saying the repairs to our car will be at least $1300. We don’t have $1300 extra lying around. And we only have one car and we need it to run. But I am thankful we do have credit cards. We have the means to deal with it, even if it’s not pretty. I am thankful my parents live nearby and let us borrow one of their cars while ours is in the shop so I could drive Zoe to and from school and drive to my meetings. I am thankful to be starting work today with a new client. I am thankful that the new client provides health care to hundreds of low-income children and families in our community. Wood gets it right when he says “The more we say thanks, the more we find to be thankful for.”