As a kid, I was an ingrate.
I think a lot of so-called first world kids are, but that doesn’t make it okay. My life was far from perfect, but I made it a lot worse with my attitude.
Even on days like Thanksgiving, I was cranky. For some reason, we never discussed gratitude in my family, not even on the one day of the year when it was a major theme. And we had so much to be grateful for: a solid roof over our heads, a spectacular meal on the table, freedom from illness or disease (unless you count depression, which was rampant in my house, or spinal deformities which were rampant in my spine, but I mean stuff like cancer, Parkinson’s, AIDS).
After college, when I lived in New York, my parents came to the city and my mom made a proper Thanksgiving dinner for the three of us. We sat in my gram’s cane backed dining room chairs which she had given me along with the matching table when she moved into an assisted living facility. Afterward, we took a walk down to the Hudson and stood around looking at the Intrepid and breathing in the unseasonably warm air.
I would have been quite surprised to discover that within two years I would be homeless and living here on the very dock we were standing on.
For the time being, we ambled back to my apartment and my dad and I watched TV while my mom cleaned up. I’m certain it didn’t even occur to either of us to offer to help.
The Thanksgiving after that I went to my brother-in-law’s house in Connecticut—I’m sure I didn’t help clean up there either—and then the year after that, who knows? There is a five year gap when things like Thanksgiving went uncelebrated and unrecognized, lost in a fog of mad drug use.
There is nothing like losing everything to make you appreciate what you once had.
Now, when I sit down to a meal, any meal, not just Thanksgiving or a prix fix in a fancy shmancy restaurant, or even a fancy shmancy meal I cooked myself—any meal, I am effortlessly awash in gratitude. You can find me praying over a peanut butter sandwich.
It was after I was evicted from my apartment—and all my stuff was chucked in the basement of the apartment building where the super said it would be safe until I picked it up, but it wasn’t because he either sold it all or threw it all away—that my feelings of gratitude began to sprout.
Finding a coupon in a phone book in a public phone booth for a free tanning salon session so I could lay down and rest for twenty minutes was cause for celebration. Ditto the fact that the Penn Station police allowed homeless people to sit in the chairs in the waiting room even though they weren’t supposed to, and the nice woman there who had no teeth and was wrapped in rags, but who always had Chinese food and insisted I eat with her.
Joyous were the days a youth hostel overlooked my grave appearance and the smell that most certainly must have enveloped me, and allowed me to sleep on one of their plastic sheet covered community beds for the night, as were the times one friend or other would open their apartment door to me, against their better judgement, and let me use their shower.
There were countless undeserved acts of kindness extended to me in my miserable state, and each one broke my heart because I knew I wasn’t worthy.
I can still remember the face and the name of a man—John Whipple—who, when I was at Grand Central trying to sell train tickets I had bought with bad checks for cash on the tracks to commuters, stopped me, reached into his pocket and gave me over a hundred dollars. “You just pay me back when you can,” he said kindly and handed me his card.
I lost the card when my stuff was stolen in Tompkins Square Park while I slept off a bender, and to this day, it tugs on my conscience.
By the time I got my act together, the snotty kid I had once been was gone. In her stead, was a woman so rife with gratitude she wanted to shout it out to the sun, moon and stars each and every day that she awoke.
And so I do.
I give thanks when I teach, when I sleep, when I see my son, pet my dog, do a load of laundry, hold my husband’s hand, drive my car, write some words, read some words and chop an onion. I give thanks every day for everything. I understand now that every day is Thanksgiving, and that it’s my job to celebrate it.
A great deal of happiness comes from your mind set, and living in gratitude is the shortest path to happiness I know.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman