Thanksgiving cometh, and ‘tis the season to "count our blessings, and name them one by one" as the old song goes. But "fostering gratitude" is easy to say and harder to do. How do we practice on the little setbacks--when the cell coverage is down, or the pizza is late--so that our mindset is one of thankfulness even when the stakes are higher? Is it possible to develop a habit of gratitude strong enough to endure even in the toughest of times?
One habit Zeus and I have tried to instill in our kids is to say "Thank you for dinner" to whomever cooked it. At first this involved a lot of practice and reminding, and someone listening might have accused us of creating mindless little thank-you parrots. But when the day came that it finally stuck, and one of them bubbled out an unprompted "Thank you for dinner, Mama," it was a glorious thing! Did I care if they had thanked me out of deep reflection or plain habit? No. I was simply glad that my work had been acknowledged.
Just because something is a habit doesn't imply it isn't meaningful. For instance, I am in the habit of hugging my children before bed, but the snuggles aren't any less genuine.
In the season of Thanksgiving, we try to be a little more mindful and visual about our gratitude. Several years ago, an idea from a friend took root and grew into a tree in our house: the Thankfulness Tree. It's a literal, if not biological tree: brown construction paper cut into branches, laminated and taped onto the wall for the month of November. We cut leaf shapes out of construction paper, and after dinner we write whatever we're thankful for at that moment on a leaf and tape it onto the tree.
Through November, although the trees outside lose their leaves, our Thankfulness Tree grows more. What's written on them ranges from the thoughtful and philosophical: "music," "book club," and "things that you have put off, finished," to the tangible and practical: "sleep," "sour cream and onion potato chips," and "spray paint." (??)
Our youngest is repeatedly thankful for the treehouse and draws a picture of it on his leaf each evening. We know it is a picture of the treehouse because he tells us that it is. The act of slowing down long enough to write the words on a paper leaf makes one ponder, just what is it that makes this moment meaningful? And the pondering makes me even more aware of, and thereby grateful for, the thing that comes to mind - whether it's music, friends, spray paint, or the warm cup of tea that I'm sipping while I write.
On Thanksgiving Day, as relatives and guests arrive, they are handed a leaf to write on, and we all add a last one to the tree. Later when we've reawakened from our turkey-induced tryptophan comas, we re-read all our leaves and toss them into the flames in the fireplace, feeling thankful for treehouses, etc. all over again.
It's a quirky tradition, like canned cranberry sauce and creamed onions. But unlike creamed onions, it's a tradition we actually like. And it does seem to be becoming a habit. This year the first thing that Apollo was thankful for was "The Thankfulness Tree." And after Thanksgiving, when the tree is stripped of its leaves and rolled up to store until next year, I am hopeful that the spirit of gratitude will continue to linger around our table.