Traditions

Green eggs and ham. 

The eggs were scrambled, enough food coloring added to complete the transition from yellow to a sort of chartreuse. Ham leftover from yesterday’s big Christmas dinner was fried in a big skillet before being piled onto a platter in the center of the kitchen table. Still in our pajamas and buzzing with the excitement of recently unwrapped gifts, Mat, Karissa, and I would pour red ketchup over green eggs, and devour one of our family’s most notable traditions- green eggs and ham for Christmas breakfast.

This wasn’t our only tradition. My dad is a talented guitarist and our family always kicked off the holiday season with friends and neighbors and a motley assortment of young sailors from the Navy base all gathered at our home late on Thanksgiving for pie and singing Christmas carols. We closed the holiday season the same way, those same neighbors returning Christmas night, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and the ringing of off-key voices filling our home. There were the usual customs, of course, cookies and stockings and decorations that become iconic over the years, the putting up of the tree and whose turn it is to place the star atop the (in our case, artificial) branches. There was midnight mass and new pajamas on Christmas Eve, and the family- my grandmother and uncle- who I can’t recall ever being absent from a childhood Christmas, no matter where the Navy sent us.

Looking back now, I can see other “traditions” at play. The late nights that my mom stayed up cleaning and fixing up the second-hand toys she’d spent Saturdays yard-saling for so that Santa could visit our home regardless of the salary the Navy paid its enlisted sailors. The careful planning, the saving of wrapping paper, the making of homemade decorations with popcorn and salt dough. How my mom, especially, had a talent for infusing the season with ritual and celebration as she went about the tasks of daily life singing along to old Statler Brothers and Kenny Rogers and Amy Grant Christmas records. 

We get older and often the holiday season begins to lose its magic. We get caught up in complaining that the decorations go up in stores earlier than we think is appropriate, or that the mall parking lots are full, or that our kids' wish lists are full of expensive technology that they disappear behind. We say to each other that the holidays just aren’t the same as when we were kids, that things just don’t sparkle like they once did. We can forget that, quite often, it was the combination of someone else’s hard work (thanks, Mom!) and our wide-eyed openness to the magic of the season that made our childhood holidays so special. When was the last time you heard an 8-year-old complain about carols playing at the grocery store in November? You don’t. They simply grin and sing along to words that fill them with excitement. 

As adults, we have to do our own hard work. We have to pull out the decorations on a Saturday morning instead of sitting on the couch continuing to scroll through our phones. We have to set aside our snarky eye-rolling and sing along to Jingle Bells for the eleven-thousandth time in our lives. We need to go to that tree-lighting and bake those cookies and watch Elf yet again and do whatever things allow us to open up to the very best parts of the season. Even better, we have the opportunity to smile at the sparkling lights and festive cheer, and then reach out further, to extend forgiveness where we once gave anger, to share our love and our compassion where we once held back, to renew our resolve to carry that love and forgiveness and compassion into the new year with us as we work to be kinder and more empathic in this world that can sometimes feel so full of pain.

For years, I put all of this off. I didn’t take any kind of active stand against the holidays, I simply didn’t put any effort in, didn’t go out of my way at all. I assumed that someday I would have kids and then I would pick up where my childhood left off, complete with Statler Brothers and Amy Grant and maybe even a little Dolly Parton thrown in for good measure. The first holiday season after I knew for certain that I would never have children, I was shocked at the waves of grief that would hit each time I realized that this would not be the case, that the images I’d carried for as long as I could remember of turning eggs a bizarre shade of green on Christmas morning to the delight of my kids would never actually take place. 

The holidays have a way of bringing our losses home to us. The absence of my grandmother and my uncle on Christmas morning reminds me every year how very much I still miss them. The shimmering ghosts of the children I thought I would raise, the mother I thought I would be, often dance at the edges of the kitchen as I bake cookies or put the star at the top of the tree. But those losses and ghosts and the bittersweet nostalgia of holidays past only lend more texture to this time of year, I find. These things allow me to see some of the scaffolding under the celebrating, erected of love and duty and hope and grief. As a child, my wonder could extend only to the magic and the gifts and the delicious food. As an adult, I can see the great depths of love and the sacrifice that provided those things for me, and my wonder can now more fully embrace true gratitude as well as the deep joy of reciprocity, of contributing and giving of my own heart and hands. 

We can continue to complain about mall crowds or consumerism. We can take offense at which words the cashier at the grocery store uses to wish us well during this season. We can sink into sadness over who is missing from our tables or how time has changed our dreams. 

Or...

We can take responsibility for our holiday season ourselves. Grief and sadness are not mutually exclusive with joy and gratitude, after all. Sometimes I think they are all more powerful when paired, actually, and to take responsibility for our holiday seasons means that we embrace the tough parts too. That we acknowledge our own pain and that of those around us so that we can add sparkle to not only our own lives, but take the opportunity to sprinkle it around for others as well. We can put up trees and string popcorn and bake delicious things that have too much sugar and butter involved. We can beam at the photos on the holiday cards that arrive in the mail and leave them up way past the season just because they make us smile. We can pay for a stranger’s coffee or leave a toy under a tree for an unknown child or stop by to sit and play checkers at a nursing home. We can choose to wait patiently in long lines and still smile and be kind to our fellow shoppers as well as the exhausted and abused clerk behind the register. We can hug the people that are at our tables and tell them an extra time or two just how much they mean to us. We can look with love at the ghosts of other lives we may have led and then turn with real and genuine gratitude at the many gifts in the lives we are actually leading. 

As for me, I think I’ll go with belting out some Statler Brothers off-key, baking up a storm, holding Justin’s hand tight, telling my family and friends how much I love them, saying thank you to anyone and everyone, and maybe even seeing if I can find organic green food coloring for my Christmas morning eggs.

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A Gratitude Practice or A Gratitude Habit?

With Thanksgiving rolling in tomorrow, the idea of gratitude is at the forefront of all of our minds. Actually, it’s not just Thanksgiving…the idea of practicing gratitude seems to be everywhere lately. Everything from self-help books to morning shows have a headline about gratitude and how to practice it, generally all summed up with a bubbly little quip. And really, there’s good reason- a daily gratitude practice has been linked in study after study to everything from heightened social connectedness to increased happiness to a general feeling of abundance and possibility. (Interested? Try this article or this one or this one or this one...) But there is a catch- it must be truly genuine.

I am an avid journaler and have been ever since keeping a journal was assigned as summer homework for my ninth-grade honors english class. My journaling has ranged from daily pages of scrawled self-involved adolescent angst to sparse entries that give little insight. There are to-do lists and travel plans and more recently sketches and watercolors tucked in between reflections written longhand. A few years ago, I added a spread each month for a gratitude log. I've kept it rather simple, just space for a single line each day to note something I feel particularly grateful for. It’s a great idea and extremely effective at bringing real warmth and appreciation and richness to my life…when I do it meaningfully.

I noticed the other day that my November gratitude log is really line after line of just something that I did that day. It contains lines of “gratitude” that say things like, “met up with friends for lunch- great conversation.” This is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t really reflect what it is that I’m actually grateful for, does it? It doesn’t reach past the superficial and connect me to the real blessings in my life. I might have come closer to the true purpose of the exercise had I written something like, “for having the space and flexibility in my schedule to be able to have lunch with friends,” or “that I have friends who are so insightful and informed and can engage in conversation that broadens and enriches my understanding of the world,” or “that I have such amazing humans as my friends and that there is so much love and laughter in my life.” And even better would be to truly pause long enough to really reflect on those facts and let them sink in as I wrote. That’s a gratitude practice. What I’ve been doing has been a superficial habit.

I’m using the term “habit” loosely here and I realize that part of the reason for developing a gratitude practice is to create a meaningful habit of recognizing the gifts and blessings large and small that are a part of our daily lives. But in this context, I’m using “habit” as the term to describe an automatic action done with minimal thought or attention. That is what my gratitude log has become, really. When I pull out my journal to write in the mornings, I flip to my gratitude spread and quickly fill in the blank before beginning my “real” writing. Ugh. No wonder it hasn’t really resonated with me lately. 

A key piece to an effective gratitude practice is the pausing, the stopping to truly and genuinely feel deeply appreciative for something. There are days in all of our lives where all we might be able to come up with is "that this day is only 24 hours and I can begin again tomorrow," but even that can elicit a warmth and hope that helps combat the feelings of fatigue and isolation and defeat that a really rotten day can leave us with. And really, let’s face it, most of us can come up with something far better if we actually stop long enough to think about it, even on our worst days.

I am in the midst of reading (again) the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and was struck by this passage:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires…The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

Gratitude as a revolutionary act. I just love that so much.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t also be acknowledging and dealing with the other emotions we might be feeling, especially during this time of year that can be so charged and raw for many of us. It is possible to be grateful without downplaying pain or grief or hardship. Gratitude doesn’t require that we see the world through rose-colored blindfolds- as a matter of fact, I would argue that false cheer is the antithesis of genuine gratitude. But allowing for real and sincere and thoughtful gratitude can allow us to feel less alone or overwhelmed in our pain, a gift unto itself.

So I resolve today to stop my gratitude habit and re-commit to a meaningful gratitude practice. I will pause and reflect before I scribble. I will let the gifts of my life truly sink in and connect. I will search out the light even on the very darkest days and allow that light to penetrate the places where I’ve allowed my heart to close. 

I’m so grateful for all of you- for the time you carve out to read my words, for the community you allow me to be a part of, for the beautiful ways large and small you’ve offered me support. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Truly.

A happy and safe Thanksgiving to each of you!

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More from Grand Teton...we had some crazy weather and I just fell in love all over again with these mountains once I saw them shrouded in clouds...

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Home...Sort Of

We are home…sort of. We arrived in New Hampshire a few days ago and getting settled has been an utter whirlwind. We are staying with Justin’s parents, who have so generously opened their home to us and allowed our work routines and silly mutt and fragmented belongings to disrupt their laid-back retired lives. For the next three months, Justin’s childhood bedroom, the streets along which he learned to drive, the towns and highways and mountains of New England, will be our home once again.

It feels so odd in so many ways to be here. Our camper, home these last ten months on the road, feels far away as does the life we were leading up until crossing back to the eastern side of the grand ol’ Mississippi. Were we really in Wyoming just two short weeks ago? Did we really call the Sierra home for the last four months? Or have we been here in New England all along, having dreamt the whole adventure? Thankfully, there are threads that connect us back…a sweet and funny postcard from our dear friend Geoff (remember him from this trip?), a truck window full of stickers from the twenty national parks and monuments we’ve visited since January, journals brimming with sketches and notes from moments tucked in among towering trees or flowing water, hundreds upon hundreds of images shot along the way. And of course, the onslaught of cherished memories…the ways our lives have been touched irrevocably by the people we’ve met, the grandeur we’ve stood in the midst of. 

There are things about life on the road and in the camper that have been truly challenging for me, things I’ve touched upon but want to share more deeply here in the next months, because it’s important to recognize that travel and road life and tiny-space living is not all sunshine and roses (or mountaintops and micro-brew!), that the daily reality is not as glamorous as people often imagine. In just these few days of being in a real house (complete with a bathroom I don’t have to walk outside for, a shower I don’t have to wear flip-flops in, AN OVEN!), I am already relishing the luxuries large and small afforded by our current situation (and I haven’t even begun to soak in the fall leaves and Currier-& Ives-esque farm stands and apple-picking and town squares that come along with a New England autumn). I am eager to make the most of this time, these luxuries, and my gratitude is beyond words. 

But we’re not done yet. We will make the most of this lovely time here, the access to family and friends, to the ways home can make you feel, the creative spark that can come when you find a place of rest amidst the movement. But we’ve only begun our love affair with the west, with the serrated skylines of mountains we are only just beginning to know, with the wide seemingly-empty spaces between ranges. After years of promising ourselves more time outdoors, we have finally made good on it…over three full months of “vacation” time outside with so many more days enjoying the trails and rivers and mountains around where we’ve lived. We've quite likely had more time outdoors since January than we’ve had over the last 13 years together combined. That’s something.

So we’re home. Home in Justin’s childhood haven. Home in a region of the country that we truly love. Home to seasons we’ve missed. Home to people we’ve ached for. But we’ve left another home on the other side of the country. And another region we love. And other people we ache for. 

So we’re home…sort of. And that’s an adventure all on its own.

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I have just begun the process of sorting and editing the nearly 2000 images I shot on this last trip…I cannot wait to share them with you! Here’s the tiniest peek in the meantime...

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