Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
Can I signoff now?
It’s what I want to do. Not because I’d rather be working on the revision, or because the deadline is closing in, or because a gazillion guests will arrive any minute and more desserts and vegetable dishes need to be made. None of that is true, not even the revision part, because although I grumble about how these Notes from the Toolbox interfere with my progress on the revision, the truth is I love the discipline of shifting gears and exploring the emotional landmines that come from living and living a writer’s life. I want to signoff because of…
My Resistance to Thanks-giving and gratitude— this is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever shared with anyone, which is why I’ve never mentioned it before. Why now? Let’s just say 2020— the year that will go down in history as the one that brought out the worst and best in humanity— made me do it. Or perhaps, because grief still has a hold on me. But the most honest answer is this: I chose to send my newsletter out on Thursdays, and Thanksgiving only falls on Thursdays, and so, my gut feeling is my unconscious led me to choose Thursday because deep down I wanted to move through this block and let go of it once and for all.
Backstory— I’ve been pondering my aversion to gratitude all month. But let me be clear. I’m not against Thanksgiving or gratitude. I appreciate and enjoy them both from deep within my heart, more and more with each passing year because, after all, the years that remain before me can be placed on the short stick. My aversion to gratitude has nothing to do with connecting to it emotionally— that’s a snap. Where I go wonky is when it’s time for me to express it— verbally. I have no problem offering thanks or appreciation in words. My first poems were all about love and empathy, and I had no difficulty sharing them in a letter or a card. But whenever I attempt to vocalize a “Thank you” my throat locks up. I do say it, and the saying of it has gotten less stressful over the years, but still, climbing to the top of Everest would be easier for me.
It’s mortifying. But after much contemplation, I’ve discovered, unfortunately, that I come by this untenable behavior honestly. It’s how I was raised.
Like hatred and racism, ingratitude is taught.
Jump back to the day I asked my middle son if he’d like to accompany me to see my parents. His response— “I’d rather stab myself in the eye with an icepick. They’re the most hateful people on the planet.”
Jump farther back to the summer I brought my husband home to meet my parents. We arrived late in the evening after a long drive from Pennsylvania to Illinois. My father was already in his pajamas and robe, standing at the kitchen sink eating an orange as he always did before bed. My husband and I had stopped for gas in Gary, Indiana. It was a fast detour, but the stop left my husband severely shaken because Gary didn’t look anything like what he expected. All he knew about Gary was what he’d seen in The Music Man: manicured lawns, people wearing their Sunday best and Ron Howard singing the Wells Fargo Wagon. What he got was a skyline of factories. Puzzled and curious, he asked my father what they made in Gary. And with perfect comic timing my father said, “Niggers.” But it wasn’t a joke; it was his point of view. Yes, I was raised by a racist.
Slide sideways into the days when my sister was dying of cancer. On top of the radiation and chemo, she also needed to deal with her teenage son who was angry and acting out— justifiably so, because of how her condition limited what they could and couldn’t do as a family. Each misdeed led to some sort of punishment, which my sister and her husband promptly delivered along with a reminder of how much they loved him. My mother was furious about this addendum. “You don’t tell a child you love them; they should just know. Running around saying, ‘I love you, I love you,’ it makes them weak and undermines your authority.”
Yeah, all the above, this was the environment I was raised in. I share it so you’ll believe me when I say, I was never taught to say “thank you.” It’s a head scratcher for sure, but for the last twenty-five days I’ve been trying to remember my parents teaching me the importance of saying ‘thank you’ or even reprimanding me for not saying it, and I’ve come up with nothing. Of course, we said it. It would slip out during those gift-giving times. But learning how to graciously express appreciation for the blessings and kindnesses given to me was not something I was taught. Which clearly shows how an individual’s personality isn’t solely shaped by their environment. But as I’ve been pondering this situation, I’ve realized the deprivation of gratitude in my formative years is probably the strongest reason for why I didn’t naturally follow in Nora Ephron’s footsteps and become the heroine of my life.
Lack of Gratitude leads to Victimhood— which leads to the most embarrassing thing, Part 2— whenever anything in my life didn’t turn out as I hoped, I believed it was because I was a worthless human being who didn’t deserve the good stuff. No matter how many positive affirmations I wrote or chanted, underneath all those lah-di-dah happy thoughts, I believed only one mantra— nothing ever works out for me— it played like a broken record in my head.
And that my dear friends, readers and voyeurs is why I decided to kill myself. January 2021 will mark the 20th anniversary of my failed attempt. Why am I sharing such a bleak fact on Thanksgiving?
Every story has a Turning Point and the winter of 2001 was mine. I hated that I failed. Although, it did prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was a worthless human incapable of any kind of success. My failure left me trapped and gratitude was the last thing on my mind. But like Tom Hanks says in Castaway…
I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope…Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?
And so, I slogged through the days, eking by with the help of my therapist, and in the fall I signed up for the first of three writing workshops at the local bookstore. Sometime after the writing thing took hold, I was on my way home from work, and when I stopped at the red light in town I was overcome by the most extraordinary lightness. In that moment I realized I’d gone through the entire day without thinking about killing myself. It was a good thing. The best thing that ever happened to me. I was happy to be alive. Grateful. Grateful with a capital G and that rhymes with Me and that stands for Cool!
That tiny shift in perspective changed my life. And that new point of view was the direct outgrowth of how deeply I had committed myself to writing. Writing gave me a focus, unlike anything I’d ever known. The act of writing allowed me to remove the drama from my life and put it on the page. And I’ve been able to stay focused and show up day after day, hour after hour because writing a novel is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. Improvement is slow— at least for me— yet each sliver of improvement is a victory. Victory with a capital V and that rhymes with G and that stands for Gratitude.
And that my dear friends, readers and voyeurs is how writing saved my life. I’m especially grateful for it today because my writing is what has led me to connect with you. Some of you I actually know, others I may never meet. But I am grateful for each and every one of you. Your willingness to listen helps me write and connect with an open heart. Victory!