Five Things I’m Grateful for this Thanksgiving

The isolation brought on by the pandemic has taken its toll on many of us, me included. As a result, rather than seeing the glass half full as I once did, I became a list maker of tiny gripes: endless emails, bad drivers, unreturned phone calls and year-late healthcare bills topped my list.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long to realize that focusing on the negative wasn’t helpful. So I recruited a “bliss buddy” with whom I began sharing what I was grateful for: the beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers and the compassion of friends made the list often.

So did my sister Karen who, for the past 152 days, has sent me a text each morning to remind me that I am both loved and lovable. Her kind words have become the background music of my days, often uplifting my spirits before I even realize they need it.

Here are four other things I am especially grateful for this Thanksgiving:

  • My aunt Caroline. In February 2020, I wrote my first Word Sisters blog post. It was about my aunt and uncle, both in their 90s. He had recently been hospitalized, she had recently suffered a stroke. While he has since died, she continues to thrive, despite having lost the ability to speak clearly or use the right side of her body. The last of my mother’s siblings, she’s an amazing role model whose light continues to shine bright and who shows me that I can age with gusto despite the challenges I may face.
  • My health and healthcare providers. I’ve taken my physical and mental health for granted my entire life. Then, one day in August 2020, despite routinely walking 10,000 steps a day, I could barely get myself around the block. After an MRI, I was told I needed to have my hip replaced. I opted for physical therapy instead and am now able to walk to my heart’s content once again. I also opted to see a mental health therapist. Her support keeps me grounded in the here and now yet gives me hope that I can—and will—change.
  • My book group. I’ve been a member of my book group going on three decades. During that time, one member was murdered by her husband, another died of cancer. Most of us have lost our parents, all of us are coming to terms with our own aging. Getting together every other month means meaningful conversations with women I trust who know both my good and bad qualities and who offer their unconditional love and support.
  • The ability to say no. I’ve been a people pleaser my whole life, afraid of disappointing others. That sometimes meant staying on committees that drained me, meeting friends for cocktails when I didn’t want to be drinking and driving across town in rush-hour traffic when I wanted to be curled up on the couch. The pandemic lessened the things I was invited to do and made it easier to say no to things that weren’t in line with my priorities.

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Please share.

In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

During recent conversations with a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and several mothers of millennial and Gen Z adults, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon affecting many young adults: dismay, disappointment, and a persistent sense of failure at not having a job they’re passionate about.

I’ve heard hints of this from the millennials in my life, but Anne Helen Peterson’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, crystalized my understanding, especially her chapter, “Do What You Love and You’ll Still Work Every Day for the Rest of Your Life.” Her book discusses in depth how cultural definitions of success and workplace expectations have become impossible to achieve, which leads to burnout.

I’ve zeroed in on one of her observations—the fallacy that if you work hard, go to a good college, engage in lots of extracurriculars and internships, and are passionate about your work, you’ll land a wonderful satisfying job. What too many people are discovering is that fulfilling jobs you can be passionate about are rare. Unfortunately, American culture has made “being passionate about work” seem like a realistic goal. In short, young adults have been conned. 

When faced with the realization they aren’t passionate about their jobs and can’t even imagine a job they would be passionate about, they feel like losers. Hidden in the language of “passionate about work” is the warped premise that you are your job. This frustrates and saddens me. Why have we foisted ridiculous standards like “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and “Don’t settle for less” on workers? 

I liked the work I did and occasionally I was passionate about a project, but most of the time my work as a marketing communications copywriter could be called a Moderately Interesting Job. My passions (insofar as I’d use the overblown word, “passion” to describe anything I do) lie elsewhere. Some people are passionate about their work and I applaud them, but far more people are not. Work is just work, and that’s a totally valid view.

I’m definitely NOT advocating that people should aspire to crummy jobs in which the pay is low, the schedule is erratic, there’s no opportunity to advance, and benefits are nonexistent. For decades, too many American employers have gotten away with treating employees poorly. I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for people who are walking away from that work.

But if I were queen of the world, I’d characterize work as one potentially fulfilling aspect of your life, a necessity, but not what defines a person’s worth. Often what people are passionate about exists away from the job. You can’t make a living being a sports fan, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with family and friends. If those activities make you happy, they’re a success—they don’t have to be lucrative. 

If I could, I’d retool American culture’s expectations about work. To me, Moderately Interesting Work or Uninspiring Work with Fun Coworkers or The Job You Don’t Mind Doing are worthy goals. Achievable. Feel free to find your passion elsewhere!

She’s in the Book

On page 7, Crystel wrote, Are you skimming through this? I would have flown through the 421 pages of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And The Mountains Echoed or flipped to the back of the book and started reading to the front. Her notation stopped me.  

She had made it impossible. The book was a birthday gift from her. More significantly, throughout the book she underlined, drew pictures, commented, and gave of herself. How could I skim one single page when I could miss a piece of her? Her insights. Her thoughts. Her feelings.

On page 2 she underlined, cause he had a family that he cherished above all things. A paragraph later next to, Baba Ayub privately had a unique fondness for one among them, his youngest, she teased, just like you.

My daughter brought me along on her personal journey and in essence we were reading the book together.

At times she encouraged, Don’t cry, mom and Don’t panic, mom on difficult passages such as when Father hit Abdullah.

Sometimes she questioned But why? Or guessed, I bet he’s gonna leave them or something.

She compared the book to her own life. Shuja the dog was our Sadie. About Kabul, she wrote, Kinda picturing Guatemala.

Her frustration showed, Soooo many diff. names. IDK who is who! and, So we are just gonna forget about the vanished girl?

I began to read the novel to unearth her and understand her inner world.  

After, Father went after Shuja with a stick, wasI am sobbing.

I would be both LOL but also amazed and touched she wrote when Nabi discovered that Mr. Wahdati was sketching him.

She entertained me with her own sketches of a sleeping cow, trees, a duck, cars, eyeballs, and the devil.

My birthday is a few weeks after Crystel left for college. When I picked the book up in the evening, it staved off the heartache. Emotionally I was with her. What a gift!

It was easier with Mother – always had been – less complicated, less treacherous. I didn’t have to be on guard much. I didn’t have to watch what I said all the time for fear of inflicting a wound. A sketch of a little heart floated on the side of the page.

I snapped a photo of the passage she had underlined and texted it to her. Let her know that I heard her. That finna be us, she responded, with a couple of emojis. I know! I answered. Making a vow to always be there for her, a promise that only our hearts could hear.

Hiding Out

Porcelain, cardboard, tin, and plastic Jack o’ lanterns grin from a ledge in the laundry room. I moved them to the basement the morning after Halloween along with candy corn lights and a gauzy witch that cackles when someone walks past. Here’s my sad secret, Halloween is nowhere near my favorite holiday. I find it kind of scary for other reasons.

In Luxemburg, WI there was no trick or treating. We wore our costumes to school and at night a parade happened on Main Street. Candy and substantial treats were thrown from the town’s firetrucks. Many of the town’s 400 or so residents, including many who drove in from their farms, stood on the sidewalk to collect the goodies.  Then everyone joined the parade for about a six block walk to where a bonfire burned at the fairgrounds. Adults and kids partied and danced way after a school night’s normal bedtime.

When we moved to Milwaukee my mother declared her children were not going to ring strangers’ doorbells to beg for candy. She called the city’s Halloween traditions dangerous. And she wasn’t going to encourage others to ring our doorbell. So instead of a parade or walking the neighborhood with other kids, our parents took us to a shopping mall for the special treat of dinner out. If stores offered a treat bag, we were allowed to accept. 

My brother managed to weasel out of the family outing after a couple of years. He claimed he was going to help a friend distribute candy so the parents could walk with younger siblings. I snuck out one year with a girlfriend whose mother called to invite me to a sleepover party. It was a ruse because they felt so bad that I had not experienced the joy of running around in the dark with a pillowcase to collect candy. 

Only I didn’t really find it all that fun. I heard my mother’s disgust with kids begging for candy and caution about the city’s danger. I was kind of afraid of scary costumes and decorations. I worried my parents would drive around the neighborhood and recognize a cheerleader wearing white tennis shoes as their daughter. By high school Halloween parties frequently included booze or pot which weren’t my thing.

Fortunately, I was great at disguising my fear of Halloween from our children who adored the holiday. A granddaughter’s enthusiastic participation in anything connected to Halloween is awesome. I still decorate and usually keep a treat bowl filled, but I’m more comfortable spending Halloween in the basement reading a book.  

Ready, Set … Bounce

I used to be resilient.  

At least that’s what a “How Resilient Are You?” quiz I took a decade ago indicated.

I came across the quiz the other day while purging a hanging file chockful of articles from Experience Life magazine. Featured in a September 2011 article titled “The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency,” my quiz results indicated that I was “highly resilient” and that I “bounce back well from life’s setbacks and can thrive even under pressure.”

No more.

My once optimistic self no longer looks on the bright side. Nor do I see difficulties as temporary. Instead, in large part due to COVID, I find myself in a perpetual state of ambiguity and uncertainty, a state sometimes even accompanied by a sense of dread.

Will I be able to join my sisters in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Will I be able to travel outside the United States while I’m still healthy enough to do so? When am I going to retire and where am I going to live?

Who the heck knows. I sure don’t. And I’m tired of trying to figure it all out.

I’m also angry more often than I used to be, sometimes for no apparent reason.

And once highly social, I’ve become a bit of a hermit. Many of my family members, friends and colleagues have as well.

Fed up with feeling alone and adrift, I’ve been working on being more positive and getting back in touch with that resilient me of a decade ago. She can’t be that far away. In fact, I know she’s not as there are days, even weeks, when she’s ever-present rather than elusive.

Books such as Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson have helped. So have books on resilience, four of which I discovered had been sitting unread on my shelf for years.

So now, when something goes wrong—like when I rolled my car into a parked car at my friend Pam’s husband’s funeral causing more than $3,000 worth of damage (even though I and the owner of the other vehicle could barely see the scratch)—I try to find the silver lining. In this case, it was being treated kindly by the owner of the car I’d damaged and by the friend who stayed by my side until I found him and told him what I’d done.

I’m also paying attention to my positivity ratio. According to Fredrickson’s research, we need three positive experiences to balance out each negative one. Normally those positive experiences would be part of my everyday life—a compliment on a new sweater, a hug when meeting a friend for coffee, a thank you for volunteering.

But being as I’m still not venturing out any more than necessary, those experiences are harder to come by. So instead, I make a point of calling at least one person a day and of sending at least seven cards a week. While the conversations sometimes last only a few minutes, they definitely brighten my day. So do the cards I send. I take pleasure in finding just the right one and in writing a heartfelt message or including a silly joke.    

I’m also striving to view my challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. That’s not always easy, in large part because I’m more of a “judger” who asks questions such as “Who’s to blame?” or “What’s wrong?” rather than a “learner” who seeks to grow by asking neutral, non-judgmental questions such as “What can this experience teach me?” or “Given my choices, what do I most want to do?”

But my favorite question, the one I’ve found to be most helpful is one I learned from Arianna Huffington who chose “resilience” as her word of the year. The question?

“How can I not just bounce back, but bounce forward?”

While I’m stilling working on my answer, I am growing more resilient—and bouncing a bit higher—every day. For that, I am grateful.