I participated in an Interfaith Thanksgiving service at my synagogue tonight. I was part of the planning committee and was asked to play my guitar and sing and to speak on the topic of gratitude for the blessings in our lives. Following is what I wrote and read. I'm dedicating it to my friend Svetlana.
My sons and I enjoy playing a storytelling game when we’re in the car on long drives. It’s called Fortunately/Unfortunately. You take turns going around the group, each person adding a sentence to the tale. It goes something like this:
First person: There once was a kid who had to walk to the library.
Next person: Fortunately, he lived only a block away…
Next person: Unfortunately, it was an extremely long block…
Next person: Fortunately, he only had one book to return that day…
Next person: Unfortunately, it was a huge book with about 1,000,000 pages…
You can see how it goes. Fortunately/Unfortunately. Your fortune can turn on a dime. This game reminds me of a wonderful Zen story, you can find it in this book, Zen Shorts. It’s the same idea, a tragedy befalls a farmer, and his neighbors say “Such bad luck!” and his response is, “Maybe.” Then, something good happens because of it and his neighbors say, “Such good luck!” and his response is, “Maybe.” As you find out in the story, your perspective can definitely change your experience of life.
It was raining the other night when I was thinking about perspective while I tried to fall asleep. It was raining, and it was a particularly cold night, and our heater had not been working in over two weeks, and winter was coming on. My nose was cold. The temperature in our house was 54 degrees!
I rolled over and grumped at my husband. I grumped and wished to be warm and complained and felt oh so sorry for me. Me and my cold nose in my house with no heat.
It’s easy to get negative. It's easy to look around and notice what’s wrong in your life. We all have something to complain about. Aches and pains, someone suffering whom we love, the heater’s broken again, the internet’s too slow. And then there’s the world with all of its aches and pains and suffering.
Very recently I made a discovery that if I shift my focus, if I take a different perspective, I can release myself from some of the burdens I carry around. I suppose it’s one of those lessons I need to learn over and over again. It’s not earth-shattering, it’s very simple.
I decided to say to myself: This is your life. Be in it, be in it right now.
I don’t say: Enjoy it. I don’t say: Count your blessings. I don’t say: It’s not so bad or It could be worse. There’s no judgment. I say: This is your life. This is it. Your life isn’t yesterday and it isn’t tomorrow. It’s happening now and you need to be present for this moment.
Six years ago my family was hit by a tidal wave of what some might call misfortune, but what I would call Life. My father-in-law passed away very suddenly, a month later we had to move into the house my husband was building earlier than expected, and a month after that we found out our 8 year old middle son needed immediate brain surgery. That would have been enough, enough to keep most people busy. But then the recovery didn’t go well, there were complications and infections, spinal fluid leaks, several more surgeries and ultimately, 40 nights in the hospital, mostly in the pediatric ICU.
Months later I’d look back at that extraordinary experience, the days and nights in the hospital, the four surgeries, the months away from my other children, and I would find myself feeling very blessed. It was odd really. My lovely little boy had gone through something truly excruciating (we all had) and I felt wrapped in golden light. Throughout that grueling time we had been surrounded by friends and family. People we loved and people we barely knew had come to hold us, to be with us, to give us food, to give us a break, to tell us their stories and to tell us we were in their thoughts and prayers. I felt such gratitude for being held in that way. I had never felt quite so blessed before in my life.
You might wonder how we got through that difficult time and all I can tell you is you do what needs to be done. If ever there was a time in my life I needed to be present, that was it. Of course, I did worry about the future, especially for my son, but my focus got incredibly tight: Be in your life right now, right this instant. Don’t look away.
The day after we had finally returned home I sat in our loveseat in our not-quite-finished new house with my two younger sons on either side of me. Ben, my middle son, was 8 and Toby, my baby was 5. We sat there, right next to each other, with a big pile of books and I read to them for hours. We were all so relieved, so content, so good just being there together on the couch with our books and our bodies snuggled up next to each other. I remember thinking: This is all I need.
So the other night, when I rolled over and grumped at my husband about my cold nose in my house with no heat, I could have gone on. But, I stopped myself. I told myself: This is your life. Be in it, be in it right now. I changed my perspective and my focus. Electric blanket, wool socks, roof over my head, loving husband, happy kids. Blessings one and all.