Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

What I'm REALLY Grateful for this Thanksgiving Season

From re-gifting to a noise ordinance, a lighthearted look at gratitude.

This season of thanksgiving, I’m truly grateful for the usual things: my loved ones, the food on my table, the roof over my head. But, on the lighter side, what am I REALLY grateful for?

I’m grateful that I live in a family that values re-gifting.

My mother-in-law was a loving person, but she had a habit that drove me up the wall (to use one her favorite expressions). She remembered every single gift she gave me. When she’d visit, I’d watch her eyes scan the room for them. If she didn’t see something, she’d casually ask, “Where’s that Lenox tea cup I gave you ten years ago?” (Oops, I forgot to mention that I broke it.) “Where’s that green sweater I knit for you?” (It never did fit …hmm which drawer is it stuffed into the back of?) “Where’s the little beaded clutch I gave you in 1982?” (I haven’t the foggiest.) Once, I even found her looking through my closet—for that green sweater no doubt.

Because of this, I made a vow that I would never ask after a gift I gave to my children, and I think I’ve made good on that promise. Then Seinfeld and company popularized something that's been most useful to my vow: the idea of re-gifting. Now, when I give something to my two kids or their spouses, I try to remember to say to them: “If this isn’t right for you, feel free to re-gift it.”

I’m pleased that the entire family appears to value re-gifting because, to me, it’s a generosity practice times two. Not only is the giver of the gift being generous by welcoming its receiver to do whatever he or she wants to with it, but the receiver of the gift, even if he or she likes it, can re-gift it to someone who might like it more or who might really need it.

Recently, I was very happy to see this tradition being passed onto our grandchildren. Several years ago, we gave our granddaughter, Malia, an American Girl doll. She loved it at the time, but has outgrown it. It turns out that the younger sister of one of her friends has fallen in love with the doll. So Malia called us to ask if we’d be hurt if she gave the doll to this girl. Hurray for Malia: a re-gifter in the making!

I’m grateful that there’s almost always a Jane Austen or a Woody Allen movie on TV.

Now here’s an odd couple for you. Although I love them both, I hope no one thinks it would be a good idea to make a movie about a fictional meeting between the two of them. I can just imagine Jane and Woody sitting in conversation in a drawing room:

Jane: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. [Pride and Prejudice]

Woody: That reminds me of this guy who went to a psychiatrist and said, "Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." The doctor said, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy said, "I would, but I need the eggs." That's how I feel about relationships. They’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but we keep going through them because we need the eggs. [Annie Hall]

No, I’ll take my dose of Jane and my dose of Woody the way I take my cake and ice cream: separately!

 

I’m grateful that the season for television ads “for” and “against” ballot measures is over.

I’m oh so grateful to be rid of these ads because I can no longer tell what they’re about. There’s no obligation for the ad to even mention the substantive content of the ballot measure in question. For example, an ad might proclaim: “If you’re offended by the idea that you, a law abiding citizen, should be penalized for engaging in a legal activity that brings you great joy, you should vote No on Proposition X.”

If I heard an ad like that, I’d think, “Wow. I’m going to note NO!” But what the ad failed to tell me was that a “Yes” vote on Proposition X would raise taxes on a pack of cigarettes to help fund lung cancer research. It turns out that the “activity that brings you great joy” was smoking a cigarette! I don’t want to ban people from smoking so long as non-smokers aren’t exposed to secondhand smoke, but I would support taxing a pack of cigarettes to help fund lung cancer research. Yet, based on the content of that ad, how would I possibly know what Proposition X is about?!

As Robin Williams recently said, these ads are “brought to you by people who don’t really want you to know who paid for them.” Goodbye for now TV ads for ballot measures. I know you’ll be back soon enough.

I’m grateful for Jack Ayer.

Jack happens to be the most intelligent, well-educated, and well-rounded person I know. For 20 years, we were colleagues at U.C. Davis School of Law, but we weren’t particularly close. Quite frankly, I was intimidated by him. We might start a casual conversation in the hallway, but it wouldn’t be long before he’d be making references to history or literature or philosophy and I’d be left far behind. Don’t get the wrong idea about Jack. He wasn’t showing off. He’s friendly and warm-hearted. Nevertheless, I’d invariably feel stupid in his presence.

Since I became mostly housebound though, we’ve become online friends. It started when I discovered his blog, Underbelly, and now we occasionally exchange emails. Yes, I often don’t understand what he’s talking about, but I’ve decided to treat it as a challenge—a work-out for my mind. I’ve also given myself permission to let a reference go if I don’t understand it and not to judge myself negatively about it.

Here’s the best part. Recently, I realized that being Jack’s friend is making me feel smarter instead of dumber because I figure that Jack Ayer wouldn’t have a dumb friend. I guess you’d have to ask him if that’s true or not, but be prepared for an answer that may be obscure, abstruse, esoteric, and might just send you to Google.

I’m grateful for my town’s controversial noise ordinance.

Okay, our noise ordinance went too far in 1994 when it was used to cite that woman for snoring in her own bed (true story). But I live in a university town and students like to have their parties—loud parties with loud music. Because of our noise ordinance, when I settle into bed, turn out the lights, and begin to feel my house shaking as if I’m living inside a boom box, I know it won’t be long before my world will be quiet again.

As I lie in bed, I take my lead from a wonderful teaching by the Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah. When he was asked about noises that are distracting during meditation, he said:

We think that noises, cars, voices, are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually we are the ones who go out and bother them. The sound is just following its own nature…Learn to see that it is not things that bother us, that we go out to bother them.

Thanks to Ajahn Chah, I treat the noise of the party as fulfilling its own nature. Isn’t it the nature of college students to have loud parties? When I was in college, I went to them all the time. And so, I relax and don’t go out and bother that noise, knowing that, thanks to our ordinance, it will subside soon.

How would I do with Ajahn Chah’s practice if my town had no noise ordinance? I’m extra extra grateful that I don’t need to find out!

A happy season of thanksgiving to my friends all over the world.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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