My mother’s table – Happy Thanksgiving!

I’m celebrating this Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, once again.

It’s not often, at this point in my life, that I find myself surrounded by family for the holiday. We often visit in summer, or at Christmas, but the Thanksgiving break is shorter, and makes for a harder trip.

But this year, the stars aligned, and we have a cross-section of ages and family branches, from multiple time zones and states, gathered to share the day and the feast, to tell stories and catch up on news, to snap photos and give hugs. We’ll hear about what’s new, remember what’s past, (and who’s passed), and talk.

Most of all, we’ll talk.

In my mother’s kitchen, around my mother’s table, we’ll talk. The stories will flow, and mostly they’ll be funny. Sometimes the talk turns to country and opinions, and the opinions are always strong, and strongly voiced. But no one is uninvited here, whatever is said. We’re family, and that’s that.

My mother has two tables, in side-by-side rooms. There’s a formal dining room, and we’ll have enough people in the house that both tables will be used.

But it’s the kitchen table where the magic happens.

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, when we gather, we eat, we talk, and we laugh, often late into the night.

Like so many families across the country, we’ll do the traditional things, eat traditional foods, and mark another year.

There are some missing from our clan. Some just can’t be here, too far to travel, and too short a break. We’re missing others who’ll never sit with us again. But they’re here in spirit, and in stories, and in the recipes we use, the names we recall…”Papa,” “Mama,” “Daddy,” “Mother.”

The day will be full, and we’ll be full, stuffed with all the trimmings, and all the favorite dishes offered up to mark the meal, to say this is a special time, to remind us of tradition and occasion.

We are thankful, the lot of us. We’ve all known joys, and we’ve each known loss. We’re a cross-section of Americana, in so many ways…from careers to interests to where we live and how we talk. Some accents are southern, some less so. Mostly we’re united by common genes, common faith, and heritage of place and upbringing, though we’ve wandered far and wide from our starting points.

Thanksgiving is a day for many things…a national pause to say grace and peace, to thank and remember, to eat and celebrate. Mostly, to me, it’s about family. Purer than any other holiday for that focus, it’s a day that allows us to be together with no other motive than that…to be together. The food and the other traditions are really the extras. It was never really about what’s on the table.

What we’re really thankful for are the people, gathered around.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! May your table be full of food cooked with love, and the chairs be filled with faces you love. As you look around tomorrow, may you know who you’re thankful for, and find kindred spirits to talk and laugh with.

I’ll be at my mother’s table, and I’ll be thankful to see the faces, hear the stories, and feel the love.

~ Sheila

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Thanksgiving grace

Thanksgiving is here, the one holiday of the year that is, by name and spirit, inspired by the grace of gratitude.

We gather, we talk, we prepare, we eat. Oh yes, we eat. It’s the beginning of butter season, and all things good.

We list the things we’re grateful for. And for most, the list is some version of a litany of the important people in life…spouse, children, family, friends; important pillars of life…health, home, job; important attitudes of life…thankfulness, forgiveness, joy.

I feel all that, and more. I am so grateful. But today, “more” is my special focus.

This year, “more” is all the uncertainty and upheaval the past few months have brought to my life.

Uncertainty doesn’t sleep well, doesn’t feel comfortable. It has become the knot in my stomach, the question behind all my plans.

“What next?”

And yet, even as I sat and gathered myself this morning, sitting hard against the wall by my bed to focus my thoughts, start my day with calm and quiet, I knew: the coming joy is rooted in this time of in between, this period of lostness.

I’m walking in the valley of indecision so I can choose, and choose wisely.

These are the days of hard questions: what do I want? What is essential?

The voice in my mind answers: my partner is essential. Family is essential. Faith is essential. The rest…the where or how or the timing of the choices…window dressing that puts the pretty bow on the real gift. The real gift is the people, priorities in order, values in place.

Knowing who I am, whose I am, who I am with, and who I love are the bedrock essentials. Nothing else matters…not where I live, or how I earn income, how big my house is, how often I travel. Because I know the answers to the essentials, I can take a breath, step back, let the details sort themselves in good time.

It’s easy to get that confused…to take the people and relationships for granted and treat the externals like they’re most important. I can admit I’ve done that, acted like all the “big” decisions were the drivers of life. They’re not…they’re context, but they’re not the heart of the story.

This year I’m not hosting the holiday feast..the trappings of my physical life are in a Public Storage unit in Washington. I don’t have all the externals together…no decorating for Christmas this weekend, or gathering family for the perfect Christmas card pose.

Family is scattered, and I don’t have the pretty bow to wrap us all together.

But I know the answers to the questions of heart, the essential ones that frame the rest.

And I am so grateful. I have my Thanksgiving list. And when we go around the table to say what we’re thankful for, I can acknowledge: the uncertainty, the question of “what next?” points me to the deepest joys. The very not knowing becomes a gift to show me: security is in the intangibles of my life, in the people and the love that isn’t tied to an address, or a piece of furniture, or an orderly path.

So yes, today I’m celebrating that I have no permanent home at the moment, just a permanent mailbox address. And I have no vision for where I’ll be next year, just a vision of who I’ll be with. I have no forecast of my annual income for 2015, but I expect to cover all the usual needs of life.

I’m in between, and I’m grateful. I may look lost, but I’m not.

I’m full of expectation, full of anticipation. What turn will my story take now? And how will my choices and my life lessons be a light to shine for others?

Happy Thanksgiving! May you all know “who” is on your list when you go around your table, or you recite to yourself the joys of your life. When you know who is important to you, the rest is just glitter.

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December prep

Ah, the Monday after Thanksgiving, with a short stretch between now and Christmas to fill with holiday joys, obligations, to dos, card writing, baking, and, oh yes, the routine work that keeps bills paid and life flowing. It will be a short month! I’m feeling excited and overwhelmed: I have a simultaneous desire to get creative with holiday crafting and shopping, and a need to postpone…to say “not yet!

So, in time-honored fashion, I choose to postpone one task with another. I’m spending a day in between: we’re traveling back to Alaska tomorrow, so I have a day before the madness begins. Today I’ve given to lunch with my husband and a family dinner with our son; to pausing before the holiday rush to gather myself; to organize my lists and review finances; to remind myself that just like every other holiday season of my life, this one won’t be perfect, but it can be wonderful; and to breathe deep and sit still, listen to some holiday music, drink some hot tea.

I’m contemplating resolutions, and my word to encapsulate the coming year. I’m setting the tone, right now. I’m imagining how I want these holidays to be celebrated. I’m planning. Because the truth is, the gifts will be bought and cards written, work accomplished. But I’m setting the attitude behind all of it now. I can go through the next few weeks harried and rushed and get the job done. Or I can choose to look for the humor, feel the joy, smile even when I’m frustrated, remember to breathe. I know the days will be long and the hours short. But I want the good stuff to shine through.

Christmas and holidays are so easily derailed…the expectations, the images that we have to live up to dance across our television screens and in store displays. But I’ve found that there are better things than gifts, and perfect tables, perfect meals. The secret is service. I look for ways to serve, and I am filled. I look for people to serve, and I am found.

“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”  ~ Kahlil Gibran

Today I’m grateful

I’m up early, rolling little balls of sticky sausage and cheese for breakfast. Not the most pleasant kitchen task, but the little bites of savory are perfect with coffee on a cold November morning. More than that, these little bites are a traditional beginning to our winter holiday feasts. So I roll, getting the tray of uniform balls ready to bake, ready to serve when the group stirs.

As I roll I think, my mind free to wander as my hands are occupied with the sticky dough. And this day in November, my heart is full of thanks.

I’m thinking of all those people throughout the country who are working quietly, keeping things running, humming, even on a week day when most of us are off and home with family. The healthcare staff, the police, the crews working at airports, the military who’re on duty today, the folks keeping gas stations and convenience stores going for the benefit of travelers; I think of the lights that come on when I flip the switch, the oven that heats, the warm kitchen…I’m sure there are crews monitoring the utilities of our lives, making sure the turkey can roast and the cranberry salad stays chilled. And tomorrow, and on Saturday, crews will be out, making the rounds in trash and recycling trucks, taking away the remnants of the feasting, and the shopping, and the gathering.

I am a worker. But I don’t keep life stitched together. I’m essential only to a few souls on earth, and even that necessity is limited to a supporting role. And I recognize that. In one sense, none of us is essential. No one is irreplaceable. Life teaches us that, sooner or later.

But some people have chosen to take on life tasks that make them, for a time, essential. The odd thing is that many of those tasks also are invisible to the average person. Who sees, or knows, the names and faces of service workers? Other service workers, and their family members.

People contribute in many ways. We have a lot of teachers in my family. We have ministers, mothers and fathers, doctors, nurses, a truck driver, an undertaker, IRS agents, a cartographer, business owners and executives, writers, publishers, engineers, security guards, counselors, IT professionals, farmers…who have I left out? What a splendid array of professions, now that I see the list on my screen!

But just today, I’m thinking of the ones who cover call, whose jobs don’t take a break because the calendar says to…the folks who know that their turn will come, if not this holiday, then the next…it will be their turn to work when everyone else is off, and keep essential services up and running. To those people, I’m especially grateful. My lights came on, and I know if I have an emergency, someone will answer the call for help.

Thank you for being there, even when I’m too busy, in my holiday rush of list completion, to notice. And just now, with my hands covered in dough, my mind is still, calm for a moment, and I picture you, going about your routine, keeping us safe, keeping things humming, invisible but so necessary. Thank you for choosing hard jobs, and long hours, and for doing the (often) thankless and unglamorous tasks. Thank you for giving up your family time, and for making mine possible.

Heart home

We’re traveling again, on the road for the Thanksgiving holiday. This year we’ll be with family, seeing different ones over the course of the week. Some years we’ve been with friends, and had to add the family touch via phone. We do the best we can, but making the family connection in person is not always possible. When that happens, friends round out the circle, fill in the space at the table, make the holiday bright.

Here’s what I’ve learned about celebrating and connecting in spirit, since we moved far from family, 27 years ago:

  • When you connect on a regular basis, holidays are icing on the cake. Holidays don’t have to function as points of glue. The day-to-day relationship is the glue.
  • Connecting can be as simple as a phone call or Skyping or a card or an email. Or in today’s world, a Facebook post.
  • Distance can work for you. It can smooth the rough spots and make you appreciate the good stuff.
  • You’ll only maintain the relationships you nurture. That’s especially true when you have to relate across the miles.
  • A carefully planned “surprise” visit, or some gesture that shows you’re thinking outside the box…becomes a highlight. There’s nothing more fun than orchestrating a trip like this. And the faces when you pull it off…priceless!
  • Spending holidays with friends has enlarged our circle and our traditions. Some of my favorite memories are of Thanksgivings with friends. We’ve learned new foods, new games, and built relationships that have lasted over the years, solidified by adopting others as “family.”
  • Find the right balance between pulling out all the stops for a special gathering, and keeping it real and sane. I’ve learned to pick and choose…we don’t try to do everything, we just try to do a few things well.
  • Mark the moment. I’ve learned to stop in the middle of the hustle-bustle and just look around and absorb.
  • Limit the drama. Family gatherings should not be a time of crisis or scenes. Create memories that are good so you’ll want to get together again.
  • Bring something new to the party…a new food, a new game, something different.
  • Decide what traditions are keepers. What are you always going to do, no matter who sits at the table?

Holidays don’t wait for life to be perfect. I’ve never quite achieved the Martha Stewart magazine spread for my living room or my dining room, although I’ve tried. Who doesn’t have the ideal scene in their head, just waiting to be unveiled in real life and captured in family photos as proof that it can be done?

But I’ve had better than a magazine spread. I’ve had the real thing, in all its chaos and glory, deliciousness and kitchen failures, to tell me, and those gathered with me: this is the good stuff.

 “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.”   ~ C.S. Lewis

Riley’s table

Riley, two-year-old princess and budding dictator, came to visit at Thanksgiving, bringing her parents along. Believe me, a two-year-old is always the star of the show, whatever the personality or parenting style may be. This is not to say that she is intentionally allowed to run wild, or take over…there’s a lot of effort going into training, molding, shaping, squashing, and occasionally silencing the little angel. I say all of this with a smile on my face and a wealth of love in my heart. She is a joy, and a bundle of energy, and a two-year-old. I know, I already said that…but it bears repeating.

So on her visit to Gram and PB’s house…she had been to Alaska once before, when she was about eight months, but she wasn’t really mobile yet, so that hardly counts…she explored a bit…got comfy with all the rooms and beds and spaces under the breakfast bench in the kitchen, and craftily hid small toys in places that would take me months to discover. I like to think that we’ll be fully recovered before her next trip.

Her most lasting gift, other than the photos we took, was a small inscription on my pine coffee table. Now, I’ve had this table and some matching pieces since the early 90s…these are classic, traditional Southern-Living-look pieces that have served me well, and migrated about the country from Michigan to Colorado to Alaska with scarcely a mark. But now, the coffee table has met Riley.

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving, I was doing something in the kitchen (my native habitat), when I heard an outburst of “NO RILEY, DON’T DO THAT!” coming from the living room. I rushed in to see if she was ok…not really concerned about anything but her…and saw that she had very thoughtfully been signing the coffee table with a blue ball point pen. This is her handiwork:

Riley’s signature

And although I immediately (truly!) recognized that it was her toddler attempt to leave a memento of her stay, and I also (immediately!) realized that the table just grew in value to me…after all, it was only valuable to me anyway…I must admit, I did give it a good polishing with a variety of products, hoping to at least remove the blue from the marks…I knew those were carved to last.

Well, I didn’t get the blue out, and now, as I look across the surface, that’s pretty much all I see anymore. But it’s growing on me. I’ve already decided that Riley will inherit this piece…whatever else I have to leave to her, she’s getting this table. It’s solid, and it’s hers. She put her stamp on it. And I’m ok with that.

Joking aside, it’s really a great metaphor for the experience of parenting (and now grand-parenting) in general…These little people mark on your heart, little knowing or understanding that they’re leaving a permanent imprint of themselves in your life. Some marks are more on the order of medals, others are definitely scars. But the surface and the marks are unique to the parent and child. (Or grandparent…I keep forgetting I’m in the second category now.) I’ll never look at my coffee table without a reminder of the little girl who signed it. And truly, even though the marks are blue, and don’t really belong in my color scheme, because she put them there, they’re right at home in my space, and in my heart.

If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you. Tracy Kidder

Choices

This week I made a choice I did not expect to make. I chose to not travel to my grandmother’s funeral. She passed away late Tuesday night, and over the past few days, knowing she was in the hospital, I had mentally been preparing to fly back to Mississippi. But at the moment of decision, I suddenly knew it was the wrong choice.

Rob and I have had a difficult year. We have recognized that many decisions we made in the past few years have not been healthy for us, for our relationship, and that to correct that, we needed to make radical changes. To be honest, with all the amazing adventure that Alaska has offered…experiencing the Arctic, seeing dog sled teams race, traveling to remote and beautiful locations by float plane and ferry, seeing glaciers and northern lights…if I had it to do again, I wouldn’t move here. The distance from family is too great, and adventure doesn’t replace the ability to be present.

Still, this is where I find myself today. I looked at flying out today, knowing that Rob would spend the holiday and the next week alone, and I couldn’t do it. He’s a big boy, he’s spent a fair amount of time alone in the past three years due to work and travel demands. I know he could do it. But the point is, that choice has been a bad one. We are both weary of spending time apart for the sake of work.

I considered the reality that this was a family emergency, a moment to mark and honor a beloved woman in my life, and to renew my connections with family members that I don’t see often. But in the end, I think I am honoring my family. I’m acknowledging that this relationship, even at a moment like this, has to come first. It feels a bit selfish, and I have some anxiety that this choice will not be be understood. But after a time of reflection, I am at peace.

So today I’m sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a few others from the clinic where Rob is covering call. I will miss being with my family who have gathered to say goodbye to my grandmother tomorrow afternoon. I will miss seeing the little ones who’ve grown and the ones who have joined the clan since I was last with them. I’ll miss sharing the tears and the memories, the hugs and the smiles. It hurts my heart to choose absence.

But this morning, drinking my coffee and looking at this man who has been my life for the past 30 years, I knew I was right to stay. The lesson of the moment is that we have the present, and that’s all. We may not have the good fortune to live to 90 with all our faculties intact. The choices that we’ve made, we live with, and we look for ways to re-align our priorities with family and future needs.

And my grandmother? If I could ask her, I believe she would support my decision. She was a lighthouse, staying put, watching her children roam the globe, but I don’t recall ever hearing her complain about their choices. She was accepting that life has to be lived.

Rob and I had already planned a trip back in March. I regret that she won’t be there to sit with, to share with. But we’ll visit the cemetery then with my mom, and remember her, my grandfather, my dad, my uncle and aunt…all the family we’ve lost. It will be sad, but it will be sweet, full of happy tears that these people…human, imperfect, funny, wonderful, loving…touched our lives.

And until then, I’m where I belong.

It’s almost Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving…can’t believe it will be here next week. This is an off year for us. Rob will be working out of town, covering call, so we’ll be a bit casual about our holiday celebration. Some years we’ve been able to connect with family, but this won’t be one of those times.

This year we’ll be on a small island in Alaska, where Rob works episodically. I’m working in Ketchikan through Wednesday afternoon, so I’ll take some of the fixings for our Thanksgiving over with me when I join him, but most likely, we’ll share the big meal of the day with a few others from the clinic who’ve stayed in town. And that’s the main thing. Thanksgiving is not a meal to eat with one or two people, if you can help it. It needs a large group, a full table, a mix of favorite foods, old and new, traditional and experimental, all blended together.

The image of the feast, the expectation of a crowd, whether it be family, or friends, or a mix of both, is so ingrained that I literally can’t imagine a different scenario that would occur by choice. To celebrate Thanksgiving at all is to acknowledge it as perhaps the most American holiday. The 4th of July is a celebration of a new government, a new nation being born. But Thanksgiving recognizes the survival of the people who came here to create what would become America.

Many people have a tradition of sharing around the table what each person is thankful for. This year I am thankful for a season of surprises. My year has had twists and turns. I began it thinking I would sell a house and move, change jobs, encounter other life altering decisions along the way. I am not (yet) selling my house, or moving…you can never tell what housing markets are going to do. My work is mutating, in ways I did not foresee; in ways that are challenging me to think about how I work, where I work, and why I work. Life is full, if a bit unpredictable. I find myself feeling grateful for what has worked, philosophical about what hasn’t, and curious to know what will happen next.

This year I’m thankful for family that is well, for the ties that bind, for friendships that have deepened, for a little one in my life that is growing and changing from a toddler into a little girl, complete with words and opinions. She’ll soon be two, our Riley girl, and quite a girl she is. She brings a smile to my heart. I’m grateful for all the family who send love to me, and who receive it in return. I’m grateful for the recognition that there is a passing of connection from one generation to the next. I feel it with my grandmother (90+!), my mother, my daughter, my son, my granddaughter.

I’m thankful for my husband who is by my side through the ups and downs, who still makes me laugh, still makes me tear up in a sentimental moment, knows what I am thinking most of the time. I’m grateful for a partner in life.

It is easy to take these people in my life for granted. Some of them have been present as long as I have been alive. Others have been part of my life so long I can hardly recall a time without them. Regardless, I want to acknowledge that the few people out of all the billions on the planet that touch my life, and in return, allow me to touch their lives, are the small group of family and friends that care, support, nurture, cry, rejoice, celebrate, encourage, and participate with me as I make my way. They are the ones who provide the color, the music, the faces of my memories.

It’s almost Thanksgiving. I wish you a joyful day, and a heart that is thankful.

Fall is in the air

What’s magic about this season? Many people say this is their favorite time of year, and that’s true for me too. I always think the calendar should begin with September. It seems like the true start to the year, forever tied in my mind to the beginning of a new school cycle. From my own years as a student, through the years of my children’s education, that rhythm was permanently ingrained. Even without a tie to the school calendar now, so many rituals focus on back-to-school events that I can’t escape the reality that summer has ended, a new season has begun. And although summer traditionally brings luxurious down time and a more relaxed pace of life, it feels good to get back to a schedule, a routine, a defined expectation of the week after summer vacations end.

Aside from the back-to-school sales, the beginning of football season, and early advertisements for Halloween (already there are masses of bags filled with bite-sized candy bars beckoning in the grocery aisles), temperatures announce that change is in the air. The sun in September has a different quality in its warmth, a different brightness in its light. By October, mornings and evenings are crisp, and by November, some days there is frost on the steps outside my front door. The familiar ritual, pulling out sweaters and boots, gloves and coats, moving the summer wear out and the winter wear in, signals that turtleneck season, stretching from September to May in Alaska, has arrived.

When my kids were little, we made annual visits to apple orchards to buy apples and cider, and to pumpkin patch farms to pick pumpkins. It was fun to have exposure to the harvest season as we weren’t connected with these experiences in other ways. It was good to see my kids learn a little about harvest time and enjoy a taste of fruit bought from the source rather than a grocery store. There is just something completely heartwarming about drinking fresh pressed cider and riding on a tractor trailer pulling excited pre-schoolers around a farm.

I like pumpkins; they’re my favorite choice for fall decorating. I add a few brightly colored leaves and nuts, some seasonal berries and cinnamon scented candles, and decorating is done from September to November. I think you get more bang for the buck from fall decorating than in any other season. And the best part: so much of what you use is available in a natural form, right from the grocery store or farmer’s market. The produce section alone offers enough variety to dress up your look for any party you host from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

The best part of fall has to be the food: iconic comfort food like soups, chili, stews; and sweets made with apples, nuts, raisins, pumpkin and all the familiar spices. Even the beverages are unique to the time of year…apple cider and spiced teas and coffees seem just right in October and November. I never think of drinking a cinnamon flavored coffee in July…why is that? But this time of year I’m focused on warm luxury in my beverages, and topping off a spiced coffee with a little sweetened whipped cream is a perfect start to the day or end to the evening. Sampling a pumkin cobbler or apple cranberry pie is a frequent pleasure. I bake more this time of year, and I appreciate the comfort of homey aromas coming from the kitchen when I open the door after work and remember that I put a stew in the crockpot before I left for the day.

Anticipation is key; I know what happens next, and I love it. We’re all getting ready to spend more time indoors, gear up for the Christmas season, celebrate once again the Thanksgiving holiday that reminds us of the importance of family, friends, good times, good food, and the traditions that bind it all together. So here’s to Fall, the magical (and real) start to a new year, a new cycle, and the best of comfort, home, and harvest.

Little Riley

Last week, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a little taste of heaven. I spent the week with Riley, our seven month old granddaughter. Of course, there were a few others present as well: Stephanie and Matt, and Rob. But this was the first time that Riley was with us as a distinct personality, and it was a joy to experience.

When Riley was born this year on April 22, weeks premature, my first view of her was in a NICU incubator crib with a baby CPAP mask covering her face. Although she was generally healthy, her lungs were a bit immature and she needed a few days of monitoring and growth before she was ready to leave the hospital. That was an anxious time, an introduction to a newborn, tinged with fear as well as the joy of welcoming new life to the family. She was so tiny, so fragile, so remote.

We saw her again in late June, a two month old who had outgrown her need for additional oxygen, who was a growing and healthy infant. But at that visit, although she was a warm and snuggly little armful, she was still sleeping most of the time, still an unknown entity.

The little one I just met is a happy and contented baby, responsive to play, to laughter, to the things she already recognizes as “good:” her bottle, her pacifier, a favorite toy, her parents’ faces. She sings, long drawn out noises that are more than just baby words. She is already expressing joy, finding her voice.

Little Riley is just beginning her journey, but in the space of a few short months she has grown in size and being. She’s becoming a person. She’ll make a unique contribution to the family dynamic. I’m excited to see her again in a few weeks to learn how she’s changed. Last week, she was on the brink of crawling, she was teething. She’ll be more mobile at Christmas, I’m sure, and maybe there’ll be a tooth or two showing in her smile. I’m honored and humbled, once again, to watch the miracle of a young life, growing and absorbing the world she has entered. It will be a journey for both of us. I think I’ll like being “Gram” after all. After all, watching her is reward enough for taking on the title of grandmother.