It's that time of year when the shadows slant as the sun rides low in the sky. It's time again to get together with family and friends to celebrate what we are thankful for. As Thanksgiving Day approaches I have decided to take time to reflect on my life. A day of celebration is made up of rituals that give life a transcendent aspect. A celebration helps us to step aside from the everydayness of our lives and look for meaning and give thanks for what we have received. The way I live this day is a reflection of how I live my life.
Reflecting on this day, I see the influence of the past. As I prepare for the celebration and look for my mother's hot fudge recipe, I remember Thanksgivings past: the times in my childhood which built the foundation for the day. It was the one time in the year that all the families had nothing more important to do than get to Grandma's house to be with each other and share the year's happenings and growth. The children lined up by the door frame of the dining room to have their height measured and their initials and the date scratched into the wood: a graphic record of how much we had grown.
It seemed to me then that it was not only an event about one family in one yearly gathering but the story from the past being relived again and again: the family that loved and supported one another and took pleasure in each other's company. I can't remember what I chose to be thankful for in my young days, but now I can see it clearly: the love and support of others which make life meaningful and worth living.
So as I look for recipes and figure out how long it will take to cook the turkey, I am participating in a ritual that goes beyond me and those who will gather around my table. Many others are engaged in doing the same thing and reflecting on the past year and what there is to be thankful for. I no longer stand straight against the dining room door frame to be measured, but I can look back and reflect on all that has passed and what it means. And as I do this, I realize that I can take a measure of myself inwardly and note not just the exterior changes that have occurred since last year.
I am reminded again that my days and years are made up of simple acts repeated over and over. Once in a while a big event stands out, a goal reached, a challenge met, but most of my life is made up of simple, everyday acts. Don't we all do similar things? For me, the days are always something like this—I get up, I meditate, I eat breakfast, I go to work.
Moving from personal time to work, I recognize that it, too, mostly consists of repetitive acts. Looking at it in this way makes me feel a little trapped: what should I do? I could despair or try to escape. I could distract myself or even pour myself into work so that I wouldn't take notice of how I feel. But what would be the benefit of that? Do I really have the option of not working? Doesn't my check book need to be balanced, don't I need to shop for food to prepare meals for myself and my family? Doesn't the living room need to be cleaned again, the car taken for repairs, someone's complaint heard, papers filed, the dogs fed, and on and on and on?
Does what I am saying about my life resonate with yours? However, even when I see my life as boring or repetitive-been there, done that!!— I still wonder: is there a way to awaken a feeling of gratitude?
Well, here is what I have come to understand. When I reflect on what I want to be thankful for, I can look beyond the specific tasks that I do each day and try to see what is important. And what could the real meaning be? Isn't it the meaning that I give them as a way to share life with and connect deeply with others in my world?
Attitude is always the essential piece, isn't it? Even preparing for the Thanksgiving meal is a repetition of small acts made significant by my attitude. If I look at it this way, I am reminded that each simple act of preparing, cooking, getting the house and my mind and heart ready, has its own special significance. Details take attention and I find I have to work continuously on my attitude. Aware of my habitual response to feel stressed in the face of a lot of work-in this case having to get that "bird" on the table with all the trimmings-I remember why I am doing this. It is to show my love for those who are gathered, and hopefully this spirit of service will extend well beyond this one meal. Being together is gift enough as we gather around the table to share food and conversation.
The love of family was the basis of Thanksgivings past, but today my idea of family has expanded to include all the human family. When I sit down to a special meal with those I love, my family is no longer restricted to blood relationships. It goes beyond those with whom I have gathered. It includes those I love who are not here, those I relate with on a regular basis at work, those I come into contact with as I go about my business, those who share my spiritual path, those who worship in their own way or not at all, those I don't know yet and perhaps never will.
We touch each other's lives in many ways, some obvious and some unknown to me. But as the years go by and Thanksgiving comes around again, I see that it is human relationships that give my life meaning and perspective. There is no escape from these relationships, there is only work to improve them. And I am thankful that it is so.
What does a Thanksgiving truly based on gratitude look like for me? And what can this gratitude teach me about relationships? Washing the turkey, I reflect on relationships.
Today we are celebrating and we appreciate each other. But it is not always the case. The more difficult relationships seem to be the ones at home. It's hard to ignore and avoid them, so I try to make the best of them. Improving these relationships not only makes life easier for the people I live with, I can also learn a lot about myself. Today I am being very careful to keep things in perspective. I can't waste any energy on getting upset. What gets me all riled up is actually quite unimportant and sometimes even ridiculous. When I can't find the meat thermometer, I quell my growing irritation and maybe panic and ask someone who might know. She is willing to help and the minor catastrophe is averted.
Getting perspective also helps me think of others. When I can't find cooking utensils, I imagine the mother who loses her child or the family who must flee from their burning house. Widening my perspective from my own individual challenges and successes, I have come to see the vast web of human relationships and how we support each other. Each strand is individual and important and touches all the other strands. We are all pulling together and I am working to see how I can make my strand as strong as possible.
Each day I try to learn something new. Sometimes it is something that I already know, but the day's experience drives home to me how true it really is. This Thanksgiving I learned that even while making plans I have to expect the unexpected. Seems easy doesn't it? I had planned activities up to the time we would gather at the table and I set the time to eat. But the turkey got done sooner and everyone was hungry, so I had to let go of my plans. Everyone pitched in and we were well on the way to getting the food on the table when someone put on some lively music and we all started dancing. Always leave time for dancing!
As we gather at the table and enjoy the food, we all share what we are grateful for. We are thankful for each other's company and companionship. This is what makes the day worthwhile. We are grateful for the bountiful meal and all who have contributed to make it possible. We are grateful for water to drink and an opportunity to work. I personally am grateful for my path of spiritual unfolding that shows me how to give meaning to my life.
Thanksgiving Day comes to a close. The leftovers are in the refrigerator and the dishes are washed. It has been a meaningful day, because we all made it meaningful. We took ordinary activities and made them extraordinary. It is the same with life. Life passes by and it is up to us to give it meaning. Taking time each year to reflect on what I am thankful for helps me to see what is important. I can look for the meaning behind the events of my life, big and small. I can see the mistakes I have made and how I can learn from them. Looking at the past, I can continue to learn from it as I look with more conscious eyes. Living in the present, I can give each act the attention it deserves without giving myself too much importance. Looking at the future I find peace in a life lived with purpose until the end.
Other articles in the series "The Peace of a Meaningful Life" by Diana Autumn are My Wake–Up Call, Finding the Way, Step by Step with Silence, Getting Guidance, Taming the Beast, Reining in the Mind: Who's really in charge?, Gaining Inner Strength: Learning to Choose, Engaging the Executive: The Affective Meditation, and Making Peace with the Past.