Thankfulness comes in all sizes

I read a post by Elle Todd the other day, Being Thankful, that brought to mind something we don’t often recognize: the things for which we can be most grateful are oftentimes not the obvious. In fact, they may have felt distinctly like not-so-great moments when they happened, and only in hindsight do we realize we are, after all is said and done, thankful they occurred.

I’ve written at great length—more than I ever thought I would—about the blessings that have come about as a direct result of how we handled ourselves during a time of great upheaval in our family. Most of those blessings have made themselves known only now, almost eleven years later. I won’t rehash the stuff I’ve already blogged about, but feel free to read my earlier posts (there aren’t that many to sift through, since this is a new blog) if you’re curious.

I had a huge post (big surprise there) in the works, based around all the “closed door/opened window” or “silver lining” things in my life, but deleted just about the entire thing when I realized it was so detailed as to be snore-inducing. (Elle, I really did want to steal your idea, but your post didn’t bore me and mine did, so you win this one.)

What it all boiled down to were two things: family and friends. Those two things were at the heart of my entire post. Everything I am thankful for somehow involves them. Finances, health, material possessions—they wax and wane, and we adapt, but the things that affect me most can always be traced back to friends or family.

It may sound trite to fall back on the ol’ friends & family thing, but I am sincere when I say I don’t take these things for granted. My dad died two years ago; he didn’t always have the best advice, he’d give our Christmas gifts back to us (“I don’t really need this; go ahead and just stick it in your car and take it home with you”) and he was kind of a Cliff Claven in many ways, but he loved us and loved his grandchildren. He had no tact, but you always knew where you stood with him, and he was generous with what he had. My mom is still around and doing well, even though we thought we were going to lose her within months of my dad dying. The cancer that seemed to be so prevalent throughout her bones two years ago is miraculously sparse right now with no chemo and no radiation. Big Thankful.

My in-laws rank right up there on my list of Big Thankfuls. Make all the mother-in-law jokes you want; you can all be jealous of me because my in-laws are terrific, from Pop & Gramma all the way down to the youngest cousin. I’m stuck by marriage with a family I would have chosen anyway.

This year has been a time of transition for me. Transitions are not always thankful moments, but this one is. I feel as if I’m settling in and beginning yet another season. This one involves my kids being older and a little more independent, which has allowed me, in turn, to be a little more independent. I’m not sure if that’s leading me to be more versatile or just lazier, since I don’t have to chase after them anymore. Still, I’m thankful for the next phase, because it’s different and new, which usually means exciting and interesting.

Being in-de-pen-dent (hearing it in my head as pronounced by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) means I can pursue activities that interest me—I’m not limited to the things in which my children are involved. As enjoyable as those things are, I’m there for them, not for me. I don’t mind waiting my turn, as long as I get a turn once in awhile.

This year, it seems, is my turn. Yay, me! Through a quirky turn of events, I ended up with a freelance copy editing job and a handful of new acquaintances who have very quickly become friends. Some of them, I swear, are long-lost family, and there’s not a thing you can say to convince me otherwise. The Big Thankful in this instance is not only having a job I enjoy exceedingly, but also knowing there are more people out there just like me. That may be scary to some of you, but trust me, it’s a relief to me. [Side note: this post ended up delayed by an almost-two-hour Facebook chat with one of those crazy people, and I hurt myself laughing. But I’m still thankful. Painfully thankful. And I know she’s probably hurting, too, so we’re even.]

The thing for which I’m most thankful, though, is this: I don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to find a list of Big Thankfuls, or even Little Thankfuls. They’re there every day. For instance, I wake up. Every single day, I wake up. And if you don’t think that’s something to be thankful about, then try not waking up.

It doesn’t have to be anything grand or complex. It can be serious or funny. As long-term as “I’m married to the man of my dreams.” As short-term as “That conversation was hilarious.”

The important thing is to recognize it for what it is: a blessing. A bonus. A woo hoo moment. A victory.

Life with family and friends. Two absolutely indispensable things, in my book.

Black Friday Anarchy and the Must-Buys

For the life of me, I can’t understand what would motivate anyone to take part in the mayhem retailers refer to as Black Friday.

Many of those who faithfully make the early-morning pilgrimage to their favorite stores talk about how much fun they have with a group of friends or family. They tout their incredible bargains and try to suck the rest of us in by saying things like, “It’s almost a festival atmosphere—everyone’s having such a great time.”

Carnival barkers in the making, the lot of them.

Although one could say I have all my days off as a stay-at-home-mama, I still enjoy a day with no outside obligations when it comes my way. Why on earth would I want to start my day off by getting up at an ungodly hour, jockeying for parking space at an overcrowded store or mall, and fighting strangers for the limited number of bargain items per store? In many cases, these people have been outside the store overnight to improve their chances of getting one of the three available doorbuster items before they’re gone. I’m not that aggressive. I don’t stand a chance against professionals like these.

I don’t even like fighting strangers for things I really want. Each summer, our local library system has a wonderful book sale when they purge everything that hasn’t been checked out in recent months. Believe it or not, they get rid of many classics—most likely due to the popularity of “fluff” fiction and paperback bodice-rippers—and those discarded classics belong in my house. I just know it. However, I’ve found myself avoiding the sale over the past two years. Why? Because when I’m in a situation that screams, “Every man for himself!” that’s when Mean Lynda begins to emerge. I might not say anything outwardly, but I begin to fume at the people who grab books out of my hands, glance at them, and then toss them all over the tables, willy-nilly (love that word), leaving them even more disorganized for the next person. I still won’t fight for it. I’ll just hate you if you’re one of “them.” Go ahead, block the aisle with the folding chair you brought along, so you can plant yourself in front of the books you won’t allow others to see until you’re finished browsing; park your rolling cart in the narrowest part of the walkway—because why wouldn’t someone wish to retrace their steps 25 feet to change aisles, rather than slip past you? Go ahead and encourage your children to run all over, picking up books and putting them down in random spots so no one else will find that excellent copy of Great Expectations buried under the self-help magazines. I’ll be at home, reading the books I already own, knowing that one-dollar bargain hardcover is not worth the gladiator techniques I’d need to learn to win it.

Where was I? Ah…back to the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday shopping can be done online, if the urge to shop gets too strong. The downside: if I’m wrapped up in the computer, looking for bargains, I’m every bit as absent as those who go to the brick & mortar stores that day. The upside: it’s not as tiring, and I can walk away from it anytime I want and be “present” again immediately with my family.

Online shopping can still provide some decent bargains, most of them with no shipping fee. In fact, distance of my house from shopping areas + cost of gasoline = less than most shipping fees, anyway.  There are always coupon codes available somewhere to make it all worthwhile. As someone who hates to shop as a general rule, the online thing works very well for me: I’m at home; I can browse all over the world for unique items; shopping at midnight in my pjs is no big deal if that’s when I have the time.

Now retailers are upping the ante, because Black Friday crack-of-dawn sales are not enough: Thanksgiving Night pre-Friday has taken over, at first starting with “midnight madness” deals which have now progressed to 8 p.m. and 6 p.m. store openings. ON THANKSGIVING DAY. Old Navy is open on Thanksgiving until 4 p.m. and will reopen a scant three hours later at 7 p.m. Wow. Three whole hours spent with the family, all stuffing themselves as quickly as possible to accommodate the time crunch for the hapless family member who happens to be employed there. And Staples, opening  8 p.m. – midnight? How many people are going to get up from the Thanksgiving table to storm the doors of the office supply store to get those bargain pencils and manila folders?

What’s wrong with taking an entire day (an entire day!) to spend at home with family? Or even a day at home alone, relaxing? Don’t like your family and don’t want to be alone? How about serving others by helping at the local City Mission?

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was an hours-long event. We’d eat, of course, but the dinner itself was only a prequel to the enjoyable after-time with everyone. We’d often play cards or board games after dinner with my grandma, hoping to soon feel hungry enough to eat the variety of desserts. One of my favorite memories of my grandma is the Thanksgiving we taught her to play Risk. She started off enthusiastically enough, but when over an hour had passed, she began discreetly tossing her game pieces on the floor under the table so she could just lose and get the heck away from the table. She feigned ignorance, of course, when my uncle happened to notice the pile of game parts, saying, “Oh, is that where those went?” as if she hadn’t been systematically slipping them off the table’s edge every three or four minutes. I wouldn’t trade that experience for 50% off anything a store could provide.

When I was in high school, I witnessed the beginning of the must-have Christmas gifts: the Cabbage Patch doll. Our next-door neighbor tried for weeks to buy one for her daughter, going from store to store. Who decided these ugly, ugly dolls were necessary for a child’s happiness? They were seriously ugly. I can not stress that enough. And don’t tell me you had one and thought it was adorable, because I won’t believe you. You might have thought it was adorable, because the retailers told you that you loved it. But if you had looked at it, eye to glass eye—really looked—you would have seen it was no different than any other cheap doll, except it had a face only a mother could love.

As an adult, I never really paid attention to what was trendy; we shopped for things we knew our kids would enjoy. When a relative gave our then-two-year-old son a Tickle Me Elmo for his birthday (two months before Christmas), she made sure to tell us as he opened his gift that it was “the hot item” that year. He was not impressed; he was frightened of it. He hugged it, and Elmo began to giggle loudly while trembling and vibrating. Our son dropped it like a rock and ran away while Elmo continued his furry red seizure activity for almost 30 seconds. The most action that toy got was when our older son threw up on it. A month later, Christmas time, those crazy things were selling for hundreds of dollars. My husband and I briefly entertained the idea of putting an “only puked on once” ad in the newspaper but were almost afraid someone would take us up on it.

I can only hope retailers fall flat this year with their “I can open earlier than you can” plans. Families have a difficult enough time of it, trying to coordinate work schedules so they can get together at all. Webster’s defines “holiday” as “a day on which one is exempt from work; specifically a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event.”  A holiday should be exactly that. For everyone, retailers included. Stop pushing the message that getting a bargain purchase is more important than all else.

I can’t help but think of the movie “Jingle All the Way,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger spends the entire day of Christmas Eve in search of a Turbo Man doll—the hot item of the season—for his son. It’s the first Christmas movie we watch each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s hilarious because it’s true. I’ll leave you with a one-minute clip of a favorite part of the movie:

Long-reaching effects and what they’re worth

I’m overwhelmed. I’ll tell you right now that I don’t use that word lightly. In fact, I’m so overwhelmed that the first thing I could think to do in order to cope with it is to grab my laptop and write. I didn’t want to lose the thoughts whirling in my head by waiting any longer than I had to.

I spoke this morning at a women’s conference. My main job this weekend was to sing on Friday night and Saturday morning, but there was a teeny tiny part of Saturday that included a talk: I was asked to give my testimony. For those of you who are not familiar with Christian-speak, giving one’s testimony is akin to telling people how God has worked or is working in your life. Sometimes a person’s testimony involves telling about a turning point in his life, and sometimes it’s simply a recounting of how the day-to-day survival is going.

In my opinion, a person’s testimony should be a constantly changing thing, as alive and vibrant as the everyday changes in our lives. Yes, there are certain events that are pivotal—there may be a single incident, whether wonderful or catastrophic, that changes everything and turns us upside down—but to only ever focus on that one moment in time really does an injustice to the subsequent weeks, months, and years of growth and, perhaps, struggle.

Mine was a combination of both: talking about a past event (found in my previous post, “…and now, the rest of the story…”) and talking about my life now as a result of that past event.  I was not the main speaker at this conference—I’m just with the band, man—so it shouldn’t have been intimidating to get up there and talk for five or ten minutes. Right? Ha. Thankfully, these ladies were smiling and receptive and put me at ease immediately.

Five or ten minutes…I can do that standing on my head, and I can thank my Italian relatives for that gift we call “I make friends with strangers in public places.” In all honesty, I had the best intentions of speaking for about five minutes, but once I got going, well…let’s just say I didn’t suffer from a lack of things to talk about.

First, we showed the short God@Work video that discussed our family’s journey through the loss of one of our children. Then I told them what had been happening in our lives since the showing of that video at church. I’ve been amazed and thankful for every person who has approached me to tell me their personal stories…loss, struggle, depression, and hope. There is something to be said for knowing you’re not the only one who’s gone through difficult circumstances. Nobody wants to be in The Club, whether its members include widows, alcoholics, bipolars, parents who have lost a child, drug addicts, disabilities or those dealing with a family member’s suicide—but we are comforted to know that others in our particular Club understand completely where we’re coming from, and we feel safer with the numbers that show us we’re not abnormal.

What overwhelmed me this morning was not the recounting of my own event. The “oh my” moment came when I finished speaking. As I walked away from the podium, a woman stood up and announced that she’d been one of the Labor & Delivery nurses at the hospital when our son was born, fifteen years ago. Because his disorder was such a rare thing, the staff paid close attention to what was going on with him and how we, as his family, handled all of it. Unbeknownst to me or Tim, another nurse there was a regular attender at our church, and would regularly update the others, speaking of our family’s positive attitude and our unwavering faith. (Oh, if only she’d known how we struggled in those early days, simply trying to process what was happening while living at hospitals for the first two months of his life!) She also told the group that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit during that period of time was a very dark place, and the doctor we’d spoken about in our video was someone who didn’t value the lives of the babies under her care as she should have. [We knew this firsthand, because that doctor was someone we actively avoided when she’d make her rounds—her first response upon seeing us each day was to tell us of ways she could relieve us of our burden, or to inform us that she’d probably only “work on him” half the time of a “normal” child if he were to have a cardiac or respiratory arrest. The NICU nurses would actually tell us when she was due to make her rounds so we could head down to the family lounge or the cafeteria. Someone you’d want taking care of your baby? Nope, and nope again.]

The wonderful gal today was happy to tell us all that the NICU is a much more positive place now, partly as a result of our family back then and how we saw each child as valuable and lovable, regardless of the statistics that told us not to get too attached. Our attitudes then affected today’s babies and their care.

Another friend spoke up then, after the first person sat back down. A mutual friend of ours was one of the private duty nurses in our home during the first year. We absolutely loved her, she loved our son, and we were sad to see her go when she got a different job. After losing a family member last year, she commented to our friend that she was struggling with the loss and wanted to be able to “grieve like the Dietzes.”

A third person approached me during the lunch break and told me she had worked at the funeral home when Tig was laid out there. I didn’t know this gal at the time, but she knew who we were and said she was glad she hadn’t had to work the day he came in, because it was difficult when the person who’d died was someone familiar, especially when it was a child. She did say, though, that she’d heard about our visiting hours and how boisterous (the polite word for “so loud”) our half of the funeral home was. There was, during that same week, another special-needs child who had died and whose visiting hours were the same day & time as ours. Many of the case workers had dealt with both families, and all those who came across the hall after visiting the family of the other child commented to us that the atmosphere was palpably different. They felt at ease with us, rather than awkward and uncomfortable.

I look back and wonder what we did that was so noteworthy. Was the time in the NICU that impressive? Was our grief process watched more closely than we’d realized? Do we throw a good funeral?

Even if you think nobody’s watching, there’s always someone who’s observing how you handle things, whether you walk your talk (to use an already-overused cliche), or whether you talk a good game until things fall apart. I say this not to create paranoia, but as a reminder—to myself, first and foremost—that my words mean nothing if my actions run the other way. You can’t fake that; I can’t, anyway.

If our attitudes and behavior helped even one family to have their child seen as a valuable person, it’s worth it. If our lifestyle caused even one person to want a closer relationship with the God I’ve come to know, love, and trust, it’s worth it. If what people saw in our grief inspired even one person to think a little deeper about why we trust a God who didn’t heal our child in the manner we wanted, then in the words of Jed Clampett, “Whoo, doggie!” Definitely worth it.

More often than not, we don’t know how our past actions have affected someone else’s future. I’ve had enough screw-up moments that I’ve wished nobody had seen. Today I had the wonderful privilege of hearing about some of the better ones, and the feeling was sweet.

Three amigos