The Gratitude Meme. Not Just For Thanksgiving.

Gratitude is not a cliche

In case you hadn’t noticed, gratitude is pretty hip these days. All zeitgeisty and viral, posted daily on social media, in Twitter acknowledgements of thanks and grace; there are even Facebook groups devoted to the idea of expressing gratitude. It’s a beautiful thing. And because it’s the internet, all of this higher consciousness thinking and warm, human emotion is moshed in with screeching headlines, comment fisticuffs, and the never-ending dirge of articles written, posted, and shared about the very worst of our life and times. Crazy making. Hard to find balance in all that, but balance we must.

I read an interesting piece the other day that espoused the idea of “not buying into” the messages created for us by the ubiquitous media: messages of lack, fear, doom, opposition, worry, illness, etc. We know those things exist, but that they exist does not demand our emotional attachment to them, emotional attachment defined as the acceptance of those messages as indisputable fact, the immersing of ourselves in them as inevitable, or the habit of getting ourselves so surrounded and embroiled in them that it all becomes a soul killer. An anxiety builder. A depression stirrer. A joy denier.

A beleaguered woman told me recently that she felt too guilty feeling joy “when there’s so much hate, suffering and anger in the world.” Hmm. Not much good in that equation, but I understand.

Particularly when we often feel helpless about what to do to change the course of those negative elements of our society. Some of us feel that shining a light on them, bringing them to light as writers, commenters, opinion leaders and sharers is helpful; it illuminates the darkness. And sometimes, and in some cases, it does. But then what? We read about it all, watch it on TV, listen to it on the radio, but the fact is, most of us can’t leave our lives to go join an international charity group, don’t have the money to donate to important causes we believe could turn the tide; don’t even have time beyond our life, work and families to volunteer at shelters, organize political rallies, or hold crack babies at county hospitals. So what do we empathetic, compassionate, caring sorts do and, come on, how are we supposed to feel gratitude in the midst of… all that??

What if we stopped engaging in the cultural battle? Stopped buying into the conversation?

I touched on that in my recent Huffington Post piece, Want to Feel Better, Really Better? Step Away From the News, the idea that our compulsive need to “stay on top of things” is literally manifesting in a form of “consumer anxiety”: the malaise where one feels they can never be current enough, on top of it enough, because it’s all changing so fast and being reported so relentlessly that we have to watch, read, listen, write, argue, debate, suffer, be depressed, defriend, and ultimately deflate in a pool of “life sucks.”

But it’s smoke and mirrors. A hologram. Life isn’t moving as fast as it seems; it’s an illusion created by the 24/7 media. As an old mentor of mine used to say, “you can stand on your street corner for hours and, on most nights, you’ll never see a damn thing happen.” But the media, by virtue of compiling the millions of things that have happened, around the world and back again, have made us all feel that there’s a running montage of dramatic, life-shifting, often terrifying events happening right outside our doors every minute of every day, Jesus Christ, I can’t even breathe in here, what the HELL, get me OUT!!!

Breathe. It isn’t all happening here, there, and everywhere. Not by a long shot.

It’s one thing to be empathetic and aware, it’s another to focus yourself on the darkest aspects of life. One is consciousness, the other is cultural masochism, which is not healthy or helpful. So instead of immersing yourself in the hologram that is “all-drama-all-the-time-yikes-the-sky-is-falling,” step out of that loop and immerse yourself in the good of your own life and the world around you; deeply, truly, and with arms open. You’re allowed to do that, to feel joy and gratitude for your own abundance and good fortune, however and wherever you find it (and sometimes it’s in the very smallest of things!). You’re allowed – and, in fact, advised – to become just an observer of the cultural noise, unattached and unencumbered. Notice, but don’t dive in; do what you’re moved to do, then detach. Have empathy but focus on positivity.

Sometimes it’s as simple as, when your office mate tells you that “something’s going around… everyone’s getting sick,”  you say, “I’m not.” When someone shouts that all of this group is “spineless” and all of that group are “assholes,” make note (out loud or otherwise) that generalities are the tool of the narrow-minded. When a seemingly charitable, caring person drones on about the woes of the world, the country; your neighborhood, gently put their attention on the good that exists in all those same places. When another diatribes about “kids today” point out the brilliant young people you know and are aware of. When anyone tells you humanity is doomed, the world’s on the brink, and we’re all idiots too stupid to figure it out, walk away while noticing the countless, incredible things around you that emanate love, beauty, and hope.

Because, honestly, if it’s true our lives reflect where and on what we put our attention, why the hell would we put our attention on the very worst of it? Why would we spend so much time on the lack, the ugly; the sorrowful? Why not put our attention on what we see that’s good, rather than what drives us fucking nuts?

We’re made to believe there’s something infinitely noble in being informed and trudging through the daily muck, but unless you’re one of those moved to honest activism by your rage, let’s be clear on the allowable limitations of “being informed”: watch/read/listen enough to be aware, but put your attention on that which you love, that which empowers and uplifts, that which offers hope, inspiration, humor, and healing. Put your attention on GRATITUDE and decide it’s not a cliché, not a nifty November meme that feels good until it gets trumped by the latest tragedy, crime, or political blunder. Those will keep coming, it’s inevitable, but you’re allowed to simultaneously feel joy and gratitude. And you might be surprised to discover just how much living and reflecting those higher elements of human thought and emotion impact the energy of the world around you. You might find it’s not only “all you can do,” it’s more than you might even imagine.

I’m giving it a go. And today, Thanksgiving, the official day of gratitude? Let me say that I could not be more grateful for… all of it. My family. My friends. All of you. Humanity. The world. The new day with its chance, every day, to make it better.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Christmas Creep… Or, I’d Like My Holidays Served Separately, Please

The anxiety’s picking up, debates are front and center, and posts on the topic have gone viral. It’s clear we’ve got a big problem and it ain’t about politicians, global warming, or radioactive sushi. What is it, you ask?

Autumn Holidays_sm copy

Christmas Creep.

Yep. It’s big, it’s bad, and, frankly, it’s too late, cuz, odds are, it’s already taken over your town.

I know you’ve heard the protests; they’re loud, clear, and to the point. Pleas to hold off on the Christmas bombardment before we’ve barely retired ghosts and goblins. Entreaties to wait on carolers and candy canes until we’ve had a chance to fully experience pumpkin pie and a well-roasted gobbler. There’s even a petition going around denouncing stores that will be open all day Thanksgiving, thereby robbing employees of a chance to be with family in the retail rush to kick Black Friday off on Thursday.

Protest away, folks. There’s no stopping this snowball.

It may be inexorable, but it wasn’t always like this. No, there used to be a delicious timing to it all, a careful unfolding that drove us mad with anticipation but was all part of the fun. When I was a kid, the turning of leaves and quickening of the cold were signals that we’d left the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer to move into the next and most exciting time of the year: the much-vaunted, adrenaline-inducing, just-can’t-wait holiday season.

As it started and the various days of celebration rolled out like a cavalcade of stars, we’d ready with our well-marked boxes of decorations and the traditions for each that we knew and loved. It started with costumes and the dizzying sweetness of Halloween, rounded the corner into warm Thanksgiving gatherings, then, depending on religion and ethnicity, there was Hanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa to fill the month of December, with Christmas, clearly, the seasonal headliner. The slow, well-paced build-up allowed us to relish one flavor, so to speak, before moving on to the next.

These days?

It’s like sitting down to a six-course meal and having every single course dumped on the table at the same time. No consideration for the pleasures of each item and, sorry, palate cleansers not allowed. I saw Christmas decorations in a hardware store in September and by early October a few retail shops actually had decorated trees hip-checking the Halloween displays off center stage. Come ON, people!

I get being prepared, but isn’t there a limit? I actually have a neighbor who not only begins her Christmas shopping in June, but takes great pride in announcing to anyone who’ll listen that, “I got it all done, wrapped, and ready to go before Labor Day!” Holiday spirit as competitive sport. Thanks, but I’ll take my summers with lemonade and sunburn; you go ahead and get Santa involved.

While certainly this rush to rush things has been building over the years, somewhere along the line, like an unseen hitch in the rate of the earth’s rotation, it picked up speed, so much so that the notion of holiday differentiation is almost moot at this point. Look, I’m old enough to remember the creaky maxim about “no white after Labor Day” so this conflation of celebration does not go unnoticed. And when I see the Three Kings of Orient are at Costco before the kids have even stopped arguing about who’s going to be Buzz Lightyear, I feel a shudder in the time/space continuum.

Macy's NY Christmas Window_sm

What’s odd about this acceleration is that most people claim they don’t like it. SOASTA, Inc., a leader in cloud and mobile testing, found last year that 75% of those polled didn’t want to see Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving, with 78% objecting to even hearing the music before then. This year?

In a survey of 2,038 Americans age 18 and older, in which data was weighted to be representative of the entire country, conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of SOASTA, discovered that 81 percent of American adults think stores should not play Christmas music before Thanksgiving—up from 78 percent of American adults when SOASTA conducted the survey last year.

In addition, 77 percent of American adults think stores shouldn’t put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving—up from 76 percent last year.

A similar poll at NPR – albeit a non-scientific one –  found numbers skewed even higher when the question was asked about “Christmas creep” before Halloween: a full 82.11% of respondents said they didn’t want to see anything “Christmasy” that early in the season. There’s actually a Facebook page called “No Christmas Before Thanksgiving” where users bemoan everything from Santa’s early arrival to the latest transgression – Black Friday actually starting on Thanksgiving Thursday – and still, still, the beat goes on.

What gives? If so many people resent the rush, why is it picking up speed?

Macy's Christmas Balls_smWe all know, don’t we? It’s retail that’s the “industry behind the curtain,” twirling dials and ratcheting up promotions to get people the in the doors as early as possible. With holiday shoppers creating almost 20% of a store’s annual income, it’s not a hard formula to fathom: more days to spend money, more money spent. And this particular year, given when Thanksgiving falls, there are actually fewer shopping days than last year between the two holidays, and, dear God, that’s causing panic in the streets!!

OK, maybe not panic, but clearly retailers have made note of the deficit and are raising the stakes in response. I swear to God, if they could have gotten away with it, 4th of July banners would have been wrapped around Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Of course, not everyone hates this holiday hash. According to some, they want to get the heavy lifting done as quickly as possible so they can spend the true 12 days of Christmas wrapped in quirky sweaters humming “Little Drummer Boy” as they assemble the gingerbread house. Others just can’t get enough of Christmas cheer, whenever it comes. Me?

It’s not so much the rushing; it’s more the conflating. I don’t want my Halloween goblins pre-empted by Christmas trees. I want to enjoy the orange and browns of Thanksgiving before I see green and red everywhere. And once we get past turkey and stuffing, I want to, very slowly and selectively, relish each separate, specific element and tradition of our Christmas.

Since there’s little we, the people, can do about what retailers put into motion, it’s up to each of us to design our own holidays, cultural pressure be damned. If you’re okay with the rush, enjoy it. But if you’re like me and want to slow things down enough to actually experience one holiday before we steamroll onto the next, you’ll just have to set your boundaries. Which means putting on blinders and exercising serious self-control (a good Christmas cookie is hard to resist no matter what time of year!).

Around here, no decorations are pulled out until the previous holiday has been joyfully exhausted and packed away. We avoid Christmas candy until the pumpkin pie is gone. And don’t talk to me about Black Friday because we’ll still be reveling in the true meaning of Thanksgiving. (I’m not kidding… get away from me with that credit card and those wild-eyed sales schedules.)

It can be done. You can ignore what’s being foisted and partake only when and where you see fit. There is no mandate to march to the madness. They can dangle the decorations and crank out the carols but the power is in your hands.

I hope you had a delightful Halloween, I wish you a beautiful, warm, and appreciative Thanksgiving, but I’m not talkin’ any more about Christmas until next month.

The Autumn Leaves copy

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Grateful For Life, The Meal We All Share

The year was 1980-something, don’t remember. The hair was spiked (platinum blonde, dark shaved sides with pink and/or blue braids), the clothes were black everything except for splashes of belts and bracelets and the tonnage of costume jewelry from the Mildred Bohlman collection, courtesy of her daughter and my friend, Tina Romanus. (“Yes, you can wear rhinestone earrings to breakfast!” I once insisted to a more conservative friend in plaid and small posts.) I was a singer in a rock and roll band, skinny as a stick at the time (yogurt and Diet Pepsi the only sustenance in my fridge on a predictable basis) and rarely, if ever, was I well fed, usually broke and always on a diet or on forskolin pills. Food had become the “beloved enemy,” necessary nourishment yet persistent obstacle. I had a manager, a mentor, and a band leader tell me at various times in my career that I needed to lose weight if I wanted to be a star. Hungrier for success than fatty foods, I did what I had to do. Then came Thanksgiving.

I had not been home for Thanksgiving in years and for whatever reason, perhaps starvation, I decided this was the year. I was skinny enough to take a chance on a full meal and though the time since childhood and its forgiving palate left me unable to recall if my Mom actually was a good cook, surely she was decent-enough for the auspicious occasion of the Thanksgiving meal. I had warm memories of huge, golden turkeys fresh out of the oven and the requisite high-carb sides that accompanied it proudly and without question: mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, homemade biscuits, bubbling gravy…the whole shebang. Worth every bloody ounce…pound…I was sure to gain. I booked the ticket, alerted the family, and began to count the days.

My band had a gig the week before my departure and as I stood after the show chattering excitedly about heading home “next week,” one of my bandmates looked at me incredulously and said, “You do know Thanksgiving’s tomorrow, right?” WHAT?? No, I did NOT! I rushed to the calendar hanging in the club office and FOR GOD’S SAKE, HE WAS RIGHT!! For some reason I’d always assumed Thanksgiving was the last Thursday of November and had booked accordingly. But no, it’s the fourth (4th!) Thursday of November and this particular November, whatever year it was, had five freakin’ Thursdays! I could barely contain my panic but I was going to have that damn Thanksgiving dinner come hell, high water, or a $500 last minute ticket change!

A hysterical late-night wrangle with credit cards and flight reservation desks got me that very expensive ticket to Chicago early the next morning, which wiped out my available credit but would surely be worth the drain. My flight got me in about an hour before dinner, my brother picked me up at O’Hare and whisked me to a warm and inviting home that was jam-packed with more people than I’d shared a table with since I…well, left home! Cheers at my arrival were heartening and as my Mom and various siblings got platters out to the table and I waited in anticipation for the entrance of the bubbling brown turkey, my Mom leaned over and in a conspiratorial tone whispered, “Your Dad and I finally figured out how to make Thanksgiving less stressful. We cooked the turkey last week, sliced it, froze it, then all we had to do today was give each plate a dollop of Campbell’s gravy and a quick zap in the microwave…what could be easier??” she chortled triumphantly.

My heart would have dropped to my grumbling stomach had it been unclenched enough to accommodate it.

I was stunned, speechless, barely heard a word as she continued her perky litany of stress-busting miracles inclusive of “do you realize how much time was saved by not peeling potatoes?” (not necessary when Betty Crocker Potato Buds are handy!) and “Campbell’s gravy is just as good and doesn’t get lumpy!” or “I actually hate the taste of real cranberries!” So between potato buds, canned gravy, canned yams, canned cranberry sauce (why do they call that sauce?), bagged dinner rolls and canned bean casserole, we had a Thanksgiving meal so processed it should have had its own bar code. Suffice it to say, this pseudo Swanson TV dinner put my food fantasy to rest before the blessing even commenced but there was not a soul there besides me who seemed the least bit bothered. Perhaps it was the starvation. Or maybe my palate had already turned after a few years in California.

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But at some point I looked up from my meager provisions (the canned yams with the melted marshmallows weren’t half-bad) and took in the tableau surrounding me. My parents, laughing and engaged; most of my 10 sibs, various spouses and children, a few friends here and there; the music was playing, the volume was loud, and the cheer – well, the cheer was loud, too. It was a wild group and there was lots of laughter and I felt like…I belonged. Despite the cuisine fail, there was a rush of recognition that here I was, in my family home, surrounded by people I loved who loved me back. I didn’t have to explain myself, we spoke the same language (well, most of us!) and regardless of differences, debates and family of origin debacles (of which there were many), this was a group of wonderful people with whom I’d shared my life and would always have a tremendous bond. And besides, though the bread we were breaking together was processed white rolls from Safeway, we were a group that knew how to PAR-TAY…priceless! Because that, after all, was the point of the thing. Being with people who matter. I went back skinnier than I left (unexpected bonus!) and with a renewed attachment to my history. The buzz lasted a while, though my mother was forever off the go-to roster of Thanksgiving chefs!

Which leads to my, perhaps, more meaningful thoughts about this holiday:

Life is short. Or it’s long, depending on how you look at it. And despite economic woes, global unrest, famine, war, pepper spray, clueless politicians, joblessness, the Phelps family, bigotry, hate and Kim Kardashian (OK, that was just mean!), there is still so much to be grateful for. And we all know it. We just have to pay attention. And what most of us are most grateful for are the people in our lives; the circle of wagons that curls around us like a great, protective huddle. And these people for whom we are so grateful, who carry the key to our joy, these people need to know how we feel. Today or tomorrow at the latest, but don’t wait much past that; don’t wait until you forgot what you wanted to say, don’t presume “they know anyway,” and certainly don’t put it off until the only moment left is the memorial speech at their funeral. Yeah, that’s too late.

I had occasion in the last year to hear of two different families, one in which two sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years at the insistence of one and the complete mystery of the other. Despite entreaties from the clueless one, the sister perpetuating the estrangement rejects any attempts at rapprochement and has announced this is forever irresolvable. And it probably will be. Two sisters split over something unknown and likely very minor. Tragic in the scheme of things. In the other situation, schisms over financial matters poorly handled by one have split a family, likely beyond repair and, once again, what was once a warm, loving group has been fractured due to unspoken resentments and unreconciled shame and confusion. In both cases I wanted to scream to whomever was the hold out, “THIS IS A WASTE OF LIFE! This is your sister/brother/father/daughter/etc. and time will sweep by without notice and all this petty bullshit, this righteous anger, won’t matter a bit when a death bed is involved and life is no longer an option to waste. Fix it! Figure it out! It’s important.”

A friend once told me (poignantly, just prior to discovering she had terminal cancer) how useful it was to live every day as if you knew it was your last. Macabre, perhaps, but it also made sense. Say it all, she said, say it now. Be sure there’s nothing left unresolved. Send the letter, make the apology, breach the gap, smooth the rift; solve the schism. Say all the admiring things you’d want to say at that memorial service but say them while the person is still standing in front of you. Make their lunch. Make their bed. Make their day. Buy, read and make comment on their book. CD. Fashion line. Business plan. Go to their play. Cheer at their baseball game. “Like” their page. Respond to their emails. Listen on the phone while doing nothing else. Do something unexpected to show your gratitude. Don’t make presumptions about “I have lots of time.” You don’t. Time can slip away and sometimes disappear without a warning.

I thought this was good advice. I’ve tried to live by it as best I can. Though I still do clean the house when I’m on the phone!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because other than the iconic meal we either do or don’t have depending on our own traditions and palates, its only purpose is to acknowledge and celebrate gratitude. Whatever its history, whatever its traditions and origins, its purest, most salient element is the simple celebration of gratefulness. What a sweet mission statement! And so in my family we not only do make the traditional meal (and I’ve been told no one does it better! :), but we take a moment at some point during that meal to go around the table as each of us verbally expresses what we’re most grateful for. I always look forward to the surprises that sometimes come in those revelations.

As for me, what I’m most grateful for? My husband and son, top of any list; my beautiful stepdaughter, her Grace and the rest of her family, inclusive of wonderful in-laws who’ve become part of our family as well (how amazing is that?!). My eclectic and soulful siblings, mother and extended family of wildly talented nieces and nephews; my incredible and colorful roster of friends, good health (so important), the beauty of the world and my ability to capture it. My writing and the buzz I get from doing and sharing it with those who read it and join me in the conversation.

Those are the broad strokes, you can fill in the fine points.

Mostly I’m grateful for LIFE, the meal we all share. Good, bad and in between. There’s something deeply exhilarating about an adventure where every single day you get to wake up and have a new shot at it. How exciting is that? So thank you, all of you who are part of my adventure. I’m glad you’re here. Stick around. Me?  I gotta go start the pies, the potatoes need peeling and the turkey is on the grill for a long, time-sucking 4 hours. I promise, we’re eatin’ good tonight!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.