To Give Thanks

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It’s a bright Wednesday morning, clear and sunny enough that without feeling the chilly 30-degree temp outside you would think it’s August or September. The countryside of Indiana along the Interstate is stale, but I like flat, undisturbed landscapes because it reminds me of home. I am in the back of Ethan’s car, wrapped in a Basotho blanket and Annie sleeping next to me, while Ethan drives us further into the heart of the country.We are headed to Tennessee for Thanksgiving with his family.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s sandwiched between two of the best times of the year—fall and the festive season. There are no obligations except to gather with loved ones (family, friends or both) and eat whatever foods make you feel full and content. The only demand is that you stake a minute to remember all the great things in your life and actively be thankful for them.

Growing up, my family didn’t travel much for Thanksgiving. Our extended families usually celebrated on a different weekend and my father worked in the news business which meant he didn’t get time off, so we stayed in town for the actual holiday. A family friend got wind of this and invited us over to her home, and so began a decades-long tradition. Thanksgivings at their home are some of my favorite memories, and I can track my childhood with these flashbacks. At 7, I wanted to be grownup and wear makeup like the family’s high school daughter. As a teenager, I hoped someone would offer me a glass of wine so I could prove my maturity. At 20, I felt like a child still going to these Thanksgivings, as if there were a cooler place for hip people to go and I was not invited.

Because we spent most of our Thanksgivings in my hometown, traveling for the holidays seemed like a treat and it represented something larger about how I lived my life. In college, going home meant a long-break from classes and the informal high school reunion at the small town’s dive bars. During the three-hour drive from school to my hometown, I practiced what I would say to high school classmates when we were both waiting for a drink at the bar or to use the bathroom and they asked me what I was doing. I wanted them to think I was different, that I had outgrown their perceptions of who I was in high school.

My first Thanksgiving out of school was during the brief time when I lived in Idaho, and I decided to take a train from Salt Lake City to San Francisco to visit a friend doing AmeriCorps. The train was long, but full of interesting people. I met one woman who carried a yoga mat attached to her backpack and worked at an outdoor adventure camp for troubled youth. Her life seemed to have more meaning than mine. Then, in San Francisco, I had a full turkey dinner with other volunteers (which I am now only realizing was foreshadowing to the Thanksgivings I spend in the Peace Corps) who were all far from home and better off for it. Even though I had only been at my job for five months, I started to question my decision to rush into a career after graduation.

Then I moved back to South Dakota and spent a few years taking the same stretch of Highway 14 home for the holidays that I did when I was in college. This made me feel utterly pathetic. Driving a few hours home is what most people I knew did, and I took that to mean I was average and plain. If I was traveling by airplane, or not even able to make it back, then that would mean that my life had taken a sharp left somewhere. I wasn’t the person everyone expected me to be if I was rushing through an airport to get to my connecting flight, and when I would run into those high school classmates I could bolster that I lived somewhere that required air travel to get home for the holiday and somehow that would make me better than them.

Eventually, my life did take that turn and I spent four Thanksgivings in African countries (one in Niger and three in Lesotho). Most of the time, I celebrated with other volunteers, whether it was at the Peace Corps hostel in Zinder or at the house of the American ambassador to Lesotho. My last Thanksgiving in Lesotho came a week before the official end of my service, so I stayed in village and spent the day hanging out with my host family. I posted something on Facebook about having my fourth Thanksgiving in Africa and an old friend commented about how surprised he was in the direction my life went and that he was glad I didn’t settle. It was a backhanded compliment, but I beamed.

I didn’t go home for my first Thanksgiving back in the U.S. Because I had to work the next day, so I had dinner with my roommate at the time and a casual friend (both of whom I no longer speak with). I missed my family so much that year, and I holed myself into an “I am All Alone” cave for most of the day.

I’m terrible at acknowledging the blessings in my life. A million wonderful things could be happening to me and I chose to focus on the one thing that is slightly off. I am the woman who goes to Paris and my attention is absorbed with how fat she will look in pictures (that’s true), or the one is surrounded by her closest friends but takes note of who isn’t there (again, true). Every Thanksgiving, I tell myself I am going to be more thankful for the little things, but it’s a habit that never sticks. I look back at these Thanksgivings because, while all of them hold special memories for me, in each of the them are tainted by remembrance of what was missing. Even on my favorite holiday, I couldn’t be fully present because I was obsessively noting what was wrong.

On the day before Thanksgiving 2017, I have a lot of worries. Some are inconsequential, such as trying to get a trial appointment with the salon that I want do my hair for my wedding, and others more complicated, worries deep enough that I am refraining from posting them on the Internet. I could list them all out on piece of paper and point to them as reasons why I have little to be thankful for this holiday.

But then I look up from my computer, seeing my napping dog and my fiancé focused on the road, and I am not sure how I got so lucky over the years. When it comes down to it, I am lucky for the basics—a place to live, a job, money to cover an unexpected bill and my health—but also the things that are not given, such as some writing success, an upcoming wedding and friends and family that go out of their way to show how much thaey love me. I have so many good things in my life that I don’t take the time to acknowledge.

This year, I am going to try something different. When tomorrow comes, I will not let myself think about what is missing or could be better in my life. Those thoughts will likely come regardless if I invite them to, but I will lightly dismiss them, without shame, and continue counting all the blessings I have, big or small.

I can’t guarantee that this will become a daily habit, but I am going to start with tomorrow. I will practice gratitude in each moment, and then maybe try again the next day.

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