gathering and gratitude

Christmas gets pushed earlier every year.

Trees are up weeks before Advent.

In retail, Christmas hits the shelves the day after Halloween.

Thanksgiving can get lost.

I don’t, of course, lament the loss of “pilgrims and Indians” Thanksgiving, the false narrative placed on top of genocide. I look toward the day when that lie is not longer taught.

But I do miss late autumn and the harvest meal that is a holiday unto itself.

How We Gather

When I was a child, we always shared Thanksgiving with family friends.

We rotated years.

Sometimes my family would drive to Virginia.

Sometimes they would come to us.

I moved to New York on Thanksgiving weekend.

There was snow.

One year, I didn’t go home.

I got up early and went into the city for the Macy’s parade then made dinner in Brooklyn.

When I lived in Bronxville, there was a bar down the street where people gathered on Thanksgiving night.

It was college students and young professionals who were home visiting family for the holiday, crowded in to this dark old-timer’s bar in their long black cashmere coats, drinking bourbon on the rocks.

At least that’s the memory I have from the one time I went, the year I hosted Thanksgiving.

We used to have neighbors here on our street who had a fire pit in their back yard every year, not matter how cold it was outside.

I loved to listen to them gathered around that fire.

Some years we gather with Tracy’s family.

Some years we gather with mine.

Some years we combine the gathering.

This year, I suggested moving our dinner moved to a nearby tavern with a buffet and fireplaces.

But it’s easier for my grandmother to have Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, so that’s what we’ll do.

I’m not eating flour or sugar, so no pie for me this year.

No sweet potatoes with the marshmallows on top.

No big glass of red wine.

I’m going to find a coffee for myself instead. Something dark and spicy.

I’ve long held a fantasy about the perfect Thanksgiving.

The heavy wooden table is in the woods and dripping with moss and candles and figs and cakes on pedestals. It’s a long table the china is mismatched, the water glasses jewel-toned. Everyone is dressed in velvet and lace and ankle boots.

I don’t know where it would be warm enough to eat outside and have autumn leaves, but this is a fantasy.

For the past few years, I’ve gone to church on Thanksgiving morning.

It gives me roots; a way of grounding myself in the true practice of giving thanks.

How we Give Thanks

It was likely from Oprah that I first heard about gratitude journaling, was given the idea to open up a fresh clean journal every evening and list out the things for which I was grateful. Soon, everyone was doing it. The idea was everywhere.

Gratitude is an essential component of the heart, of the holistic life.

But I struggled with it.

My list-making felt superstitious (better list all the important stuff first - my family, food to eat, a roof over my head - because what might happen if I didn’t?) and forced (now is the time to list the gratitude - be grateful now. Go!)

I also noticed that when people talked about gratitude lists, they tended toward something that sounded like magic. The gratitude journal was a means to an end. Listing the things for which you were thankful would create new things. Saying thank you for what you have would get you more of what you want.

The image of a rewarding and punishing God (or universe) has never resonated with me. A God who bestows gifts on grateful children while ignoring others doesn’t sound like a loving God to me.

The idea that the universe is a cold, unfeeling system akin to a computer program, where you plug in the right things in order to receive, isn’t my idea of the universe.

Genuine gratitude changes the brain.

I know that noticing what I love, noticing the gifts I have been given, noticing how I am supported, noticing what pleases me, that which I find beautiful realigns me.

Gratitude changes things, not because it magically makes things happen, but because it reorients my gaze. It repositions me.

When I’m thankful, I feel better, and when I feel better, I am better. I have more to offer. I am my whole self.

I have found that gratitude for me comes spontaneously.

When I set my intention to be open, to notice beauty, to notice what I love, then gratitude sweeps in when I least expect it.

Suddenly, I am consumed by it - the way the sunlight looks streaming through stained glass, the friend who reaches out to me with a word of love or encouragement, a squirrel on my front porch with his hands folded on his chest, a song that hits just the right note, an opportunity that falls into my lap.

Life is not meant to be a burden. Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a blessing to be celebrated.

Every dimension of life, its gains and its losses, is reason for celebration because each of them brings us closer to wisdom and fullness of understanding.

Loss and loneliness, darkness and depression all sear the soul and cleanse it of its sense of self-sufficiency. Suffering directs it to the God of life.

But so do bounty and beauty and abundance. These give us a foretaste of wholeness. These are the palpable manifestations of the goodness of God in our lives. All of these things come unbidden. They are not signs of either our sin or our sinlessness. They are simply signs that the God of life is a living, loving God.
— The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister

When I notice the blessings of life, when I celebrate them, I see the divine order in things.

I see the majesty of this earth.

I see that god is a living, loving God - not a wish granter or a disciplinarian - but a vast and abundantly loving creator who sings beauty through our blood and believes in our highest good.

The heart loves truth

Especially this time of year, we are bombarded with messages about happiness. We are trained to cultivate false joy, to sugar coat pain, to deny the shadow.

It’s unnecessary.

You don’t have to be happy to be grateful.

The thing about gratitude, about love, about this life is that it is layered and complex.

It is entirely possible to hold sorrow in one hand and gratitude in the other.

You do not have to reinvent yourself in order to be grateful.

You do not have to pretend that what is hurting you isn’t.

You need only be yourself, with your heart and eyes open.

Gratitude is about seeing the fullness of what is here and who you are and what this life is.

And to whom you belong.

Gratitude is the reminder that you are not alone.

You are not doing this alone.

You are always seen, always held by a loving God.

Instead of gratitude listing, I make notes on the sidebar of my planner about little moments of delight.

I write one line a night in my five year journal, just something about the day, what I did or saw or felt.

Sometimes, I keep a jar of good things that happened. Throughout the year, I drop little notes in the jar then dump it out on New Year’s Eve and re-read them all.

Sometimes, the thanks I give is private and quiet and in the moment.

Sharing a meal is one of God’s favorite ways to move through us.

Tomorrow, my family will gather around the table.

Maybe yours will, too.

Or maybe not.

Either way, you are in communion with God.

Either way, you are beloved.

You are loved

Wherever you are tomorrow, whatever you eat or don’t eat, I hope you will take a moment to breathe into your heart and be.

Because you are holy and necessary and because this life, as painful as it may be, is a good life.

Because there is beauty, such beauty in every moment.

Because we are children of love.

I hope you will experience gratitude - not because it’s a magic elixir that brings about something else - but because it is the reminder of who and what you are.


This painting will be traveling to Nashville next week.

If you’re in the area, please come see my paintings at Divine Art Cafe.

They are specially priced and ready to go home with you!