No thanks – but thanks – in 2020

Yes, it’s been nearly half a month since Thanksgiving, I know! Why am I so “late” in writing?  Well, I prefer to think that I needed to get to the right place and time to express something worth offering to you – and, perhaps, to discover for myself.  As I go through my reflective/creative process for sharing here, which (like me) is evolving, I often achieve some realizations, awareness, about the issues that are “troubling the waters” of my soul.  There seems to be more troubling of the water, these days.  Some of my friends might be surprised at how much I struggle, daily, and have for many years, with inner conflicts, doubts, depression and uncertainty.  Whether online – here, Facebook – or in person (or zoom!), it’s not that the words I share, or the photos, are not from my heart – they are deeply sincere – but my day to day existence does not always match my aspirations.  

But I have been thinking about thankfulness, gratitude, where it fits in my life – how easy it is to set aside or pretend and just go through the motions.   In reality, choosing to be and express thankfulness is HARD WORK! But also, a very powerful, even life changing force. At last, for now, here are my own small reconsiderations, and reflections on that subject. Or, as an alternate title – “A heaping plate of regrets and a side of disappointment does not make for a pleasant dinner”.

This is not the Thanksgiving you want to have … but it would be memorable!

Even though I am sure anyone reading this has enough weighing on their hearts and is not seeking to focus on my challenges, I am convinced anything I have of value to share are the lessons for which I paid dearly, whether in blood, sweat or tears – that our mistakes offer more room for growth to lead to hopefully our triumphs.  And I know others are like me – struggling to focus on having a positive attitude, expectations and hopes after so many months of, well, everything.  But in that struggle, somehow, the beacon of grabbing onto gratitude in the midst of disappointment still calls out to me. 

I wonder, in my early morning sleep deprived ruminations, what role does the giving of thanks play in our lives today?  What meaning does it have?  If we do not personally believe in what is generically termed a “higher power”, however we frame or conceptualize that – does giving thanks and prayer have any substantive value in our lives?  Are we just begging for help out of desperation, hoping there is someone, something “out there” that will “deliver us from evil”,  eliminate COVID, wipe out our political enemies who so clearly wrong about whatever we are what so clearly right on, and bring back everything we loved about our lives while somehow vanishing the problematic social, economic and other nasty realities we just want to exclude from our awareness?  Or do we just want our “old lives” back – and in the case of far too many, the lives of our loved ones taken from us, struggling to reconcile our grief with our faith. 

Oh, sure, I can put on the “attitude of gratitude” for a while, to fool myself, or maybe appear to for others. It is so very, very easy to mouth the platitudes that I was taught from an early age, whether they be prayers, or songs, or sayings – being thankful for family, food, shelter.  I am very aware that in the larger reality of population I am among the most fortunate of humans, in terms of basic needs, care, and more.  But just saying words is not enough – it is not from the heart.  Perhaps anger and frustration from the heart are more powerful, more real than the practiced pleasant statements that we feel we are expected to include in our traditional gatherings.  Soaking our hearts daily in anger and frustration is like a poison that seeps into every aspect of life.   Our hearts began to be choked into silence by the thorns of despair. 

I have felt like this too much lately … but as I am discovering, there is another way.

So if I was to describe my Thanksgiving – we (my husband and I, and our two cats) followed our local guidelines, and spent the day without in person contact with family or friends, with a low key meal (we are not the chefs that some of our friends exemplify), zooming instead, and enjoying some entertainment.  In many ways, it was a lovely day.  But underneath the traditions, I am dealing with the same frustrations, anger, fears and uncertainties that swirl around us all, daily.   And in that, in the quiet moments when my heart puts all the chaos briefly on pause, somehow, the thought of gratitude keeps bubbling up, saying – “remember me”.  

And I have been trying to do just that.  To remember what it is like to be truly grateful; to think about what that means, when there is so much going on that seems to be coming from someone else’s nightmare, day after day after day.  I try to turn off the news but find myself obsessively checking websites for the latest edict, the latest data, and the latest projections of doom and death.   I juggle that with planning when to go to the store, when to manage our limited time outside the house, and, oh yes, Christmas!  Because I am not going to lose Christmas, dammit! (Try to picture me saying that with a smile, at least in part!) 

2020 has been the year of unwanted presents – but also unexpected gifts

Yet I sense that the way ahead – whether it is “through”, or “out of”, this current state of frustration is not changing the situation – not getting the reality I want – but accepting, embracing the reality I have.  It’s sort of like reaching for something but you can’t because you are too burdened with what you are throttling, trying to choke the life out of, or dragging along with you – you haven’t released it.  If this sounds similar to an entry a few months ago – you are probably right.  I may be circling the same water because I never stopped to taste it.  

I was raised in the traditional Christian church of the 60’s. I didn’t stay in it; I questioned what I was taught versus what I could see in people’s lives; I couldn’t conform to what I felt was expected of me. I don’t have a background in world religions, but I sense that whatever truths about human nature, the way we are built, the way we learn and grow, are central to many faiths.  After all, in many ways, we are a single race, mixed in innumerous cultures and subcultures, families, neighborhoods, classes.  But all of us, in some way, are trying to reach for something we sense but cannot name.   The answers may be unknowable, for us, today.  But the broader truth may be that we must embrace what we have now, make peace with it, yes, even love it and give thanks for it, to be free to move on. 

It’s as though we are trapped in a room and cannot see the door because we are so desperately trying to break through the walls. Think of yourself as a battery – you have energy stored in you; it goes away; but it can also be replenished.  That energy has a focus, where you are centralizing your attention.  If it is on all the things you are frustrated with, it goes into that and produces – probably next to nothing, other than perhaps more frustration for you and those in your life.  Acknowledging our inability to change something is not what my culture taught me. 

Yet, however contradictory it may seem, I sense that it is in a deeper, daily acceptance of our current reality – through giving thanks, gratitude, whatever you want to call it (and to whomever or whatever you wish to express it) – which allows us to eventually be freed from the expectations, demands, fantasies and dreams that we cannot achieve. They have been so deeply woven into our focus, priorities and purpose that they become a cocoon, eve a prison perhaps.  Focusing on our disappointment prevents us from seeing that the path we wanted to take is not the path before us.   We have fixated on the walls of our cell that we want to escape so firmly that we are blind to the doorways which were there all along. 

If the way ahead is not apparent, we must be open to the unexpected and undiscovered

To put it another way – Accepting, truly and completely making peace with the reality we would like to change (and our expectation that we cannot be otherwise whole) allows us to see choices we that were once invisible.  We cannot fully see the possible while we cling to the wished for or expected.  Creating an equilibrium of peace in our current state opens our eyes, and hearts, to new possibilities. 

I am sure those familiar with the history of philosophy can identify the origins of just about any perspective we might take today – I don’t pretend to know those facts.  I just am trying to listen to my heart, and to something outside of myself speaking to me there.  Surely many are familiar with the 12 step programs, initially formalized with AA, and the Serenity prayer in all it’s iterations – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.   I have learned that we do not always share the same challenges, or purpose, or destiny, or understanding – and we cannot let someone else tell us what ours must be.  We have to find our own way, as individuals, and yet – together.  But we are all facing a lot of what we cannot change today, and we all need serenity, equilibrium – stilling the waters of our souls. 

If you google “gratitude quotes” you’ll find an endless listing of helpful websites.  Two rang true with me today, as I work to bring these thoughts to a close.  First, Charles Dickens, whose own life was far from problem free (here is an excellent profile), but whose words still bring hope to readers around the globe in so many cultures – 

And, author Melody Beattie, whose work is not familiar to me but who has written on addiction related issues and provided helpful insights to many – there is no “one size fits all”, of course – 

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie (follow this link for more) on gratitude
In the process of trying to understand what I cannot know … I discover, anew

Thanks for sitting with me for a while, and for reading my little thoughts.  I hope something here may ring true for you – give you some “food for thought” as a post-Thanksgiving feast for the soul (well, maybe a snack, then).  As challenging as times are, the process of focusing on gratitude gives me hope – and that’s something we all need to find, and share, everyday more than ever.  

Until next time – be safe, and find hope – for yourself, and to share. It’s out there!

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Grandpa and Grandma Neighbor

It’s never too late to say thank you. Even when it might appear to be well overdue. 

There are all kinds of ways to create families, to love others and to have a sense of belonging and connection. From a traditional perspective, I did not really have any kind of relationship with my natural  grandparents; my fathers parents passed before I was 10, and although I have some pictures, they did not live nearby and we saw them rarely, especially after my parents separated.  Today I know them probably better than anyone else alive – but through their letters, photos and diary, not my memories. My mother’s mother passed before I was born, and my mothers father remarried and live out of state; her economic and physical circumstances and own broken relation with him kept him farther away than the miles themselves. 

With my paternal grandfather on the beach at their Oceanside home c. 1963

But looking back I can see that our neighbors in many ways filled the gap.  Here, I do not share the names off the living, or their pictures – except in the case of myself, and occasionally my husband. In fact, sorting through my family records and the literally hundreds of photos from my parents, their parents and before, is going to be a very long term project.   Still, when I ran across a portrait of our next door neighbors from my childhood, I feel that sharing their gifts to me might have meaning for you, distant readers.  It’s my pleasure to introduce you to them, today.

We moved to our amazing all electric “Medallion home” in 1962 – there actually was a large gold emblem in the porch – it was one of the last sold.  I was four, my brother 7, and my parents marriage would be over not long after.  On one side, the Burchetts lived with two daughters, and across the street, the Millers with four children, three older than me  – and these were not large homes.  But next door, it was just the Milbrats.  I had no idea of their age, of course – to me, they were just old.  Even as I grew into my college years, I really didn’t know much about them, except that they had grown children – and that they were exceedingly kind.  In some ways, they were angels in our lives. 

Yes, that’s our then future president shilling Medallion Homes!

I remember, after my father left and we struggled financially, it was Mr. Milbrat rather than my Dad who taught me how to ride my bicycle, encouraging me.  He lent us yard tools so that my older brother and I could try to keep up with all the work – they had a beautiful backyard, and a neatly trimmed lawn out front.  But perhaps most importantly, they welcomed us into their home on very special occasions – to watch television.  For most of my upbringing, due to broken TV tubes and limited funds, we did not have a functioning TV in our home, which definitely accentuated my sense of differentness from the families around us – no father, no car, no income really and – no TV!!!  That was certainly a reason I rode to the library a lot.

This sure looks familiar … it took courage to climb aboard!

This was the era of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, preceded by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with your host, Marlin Perkins.  The Milbrats welcomed us in every Sunday night to watch thrilling shows like Zorro and The Horse without a head, that I remember so clearly.  And, at Christmas we would watch the specials – I particularly loved “The little drummer boy”, since we sang that song in my elementary district wide choir led by Mr. Farmer – that show, narrated by Greer Garson and animated by the famous Rankin Bass Studios, still moves me to this day.  On New Years day, we would head over to watch the Rose Parade;  and, historically, it was in front of the Milbrat’s tv that I saw the Apollo moon landing.  Oh, but, we also had to endure neighbors gathering to watch slide shows of their travels, and weird documentaries like “If these walls could speak” hosted by Vincent Price, and of course – National Geographic specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, back when there were an astounding 7 channels on TV. 

I still love watching this program, and hearing “One Star in the Night”

They were very involved in out local church as well, the Methodist church, where Mrs. Milbrat would donate her knitted goods and baked treats – always delicious! We would see them at the seasonal bazaaars, and annual Christmas nativity programs that we participated in, as well.  Mrs. Milbrat was particularly sweet and kind – I remembers being fascinated by her stamp collection (yes, I was truly that nerdy) from I think her mother who had served as a postmistress decades before – I am sure it was quite valuable, even then. I think occasionally they would give us a lift to the doctor, but we mostly relied on taxis, or on my Dad’s weekly stopping by to pick me up to shop at the Alpha Beta not too far away – sending me in to the liquor store next door sometimes to pick up cigarettes or beer, as well.  

I think after my father remarried that he and my stepmother, partly motivated to perhaps reduce the amount of time I watched tv at their home after junior high, which they lived nearby, and things like “Seymour presents” on Saturdays, gave me a small black and white portable TV. I would watch in my bedroom for hours, catching up on reruns of Get Smart and beginning my love of old movies – to escape the loneliness of the house, now holding only my mother and I.  And I drifted away from youth group and choir at church, starting to attend the more modern “Cross roads” that was large, new, and had guitar music and a popular pastor who appeared with his family on “Family Feud” in my teens.  The Milbrats were always there next door – my mother would talk with Mrs. Milbrat, and her other friends from bible study, on the phone for hours.  But they slowly became less of a presence in my life.

Oh Skylark … Have you seen a valley green with spring?

And then an amazing thing happened, in 1979, the summer after my third year in college – my Mom presented me with my first car.  She said she realized my father was never going to help me get behind a wheel – my brother had left to live with them in part so he would be able to drive once he was licensed in high school.  Of course, my Mom had not worked in all the years since they first married, and her income was limited to a small alimony and disability payments from the state; but, the Milbrats daughter had decided she was finished with her 1965 Buick Skylark, and I think out of the kindness of their hearts, they sold it to my Mom for a mere $350.  It was somewhat beat up, and my father immediately found many things that were wrong with it. But, it ran – and I finally had “wheels”, and no longer needed him to give me a weekly lift from Corona to my Cal Poly campus and dorms.  A year later, after graduation, I remember distinctly a co worker at my first job, with a San Bernardino CPA firm, ridiculing it as the “Jupiter Two” from Lost in Space – but it was, nevertheless, a thing of beauty (in function if not form), to me. 

There was one other “gift”, in a way, that came from the Milbrats, and remained in our lives, for a while.  She made wonderful stuffed toys, dolls, and puppets – and when my younger brother was born in 1971, I bought her handmade “Raggedy Andy” doll as a gift for him. He had it for years, calling it “Baby Andy”. In time, my mother bought two more – one for my older brother and one for me, to give to our children.  What happened to my older brother’s Andy is unknown to me – perhaps one of his kids, now grown, has it stored away – but I kept mine in a drawer with my own childhood mementos for many years. Because, of course, I knew – as did my Mom in time – that I would not be having any children to pass it on to. Five years ago, I had the joy of giving it to the daughter of a dear friend who was expecting her own first child, and sharing with them what it meant to me, and knowing it too would finally become a beloved companion.  Another enduring gift of love.

Not Mrs. Milbrat’s Andy, but … a friendly face, even now.

Then, in May 1980, shortly before my college graduation, Mom called my dorm room to let me know Mrs. Milbrat had died; and, the family was asking me to be a pallbearer.  At this point in my life, I had never even been to a funeral; well, probably to my fathers parents services, but not in my memory.  I was shy and reluctant to be around so many strangers, but I remember driving to the chapel in Loma Linda and then to the cemetery, and returning to campus.  I know that my presence meant something to Mr. Milbrat, but to the rest I probably seemed like an outsider – and, I guess in many ways, I was.  After I began my job in San Bernardino, he moved away, and eventually word reached us a few years later that he had passed. 

Presenting – my best neighbors ever … Oscar and Beatrice Milbrat

When I came across their picture in my endless sorting of faded documents and forgotten faces, I reflected on how much the simple kindnesses of these “chance” neighbors had touched my life, in ways that at the time I did not appreciate.  Of course, as a child, I always thanked them – especially when they bought one of the many fund raisers I had to tramp through the neighborhood hawking, like seed packets, cans of nuts for cub scouts, or engraved Christmas cards for church youth group.  But I was a child, and as I grew, I became too busy to appreciate all their kindnesses, busy with work, career, and trying to make my way through my own life with it’s challenges that I mostly bore alone. 

So, this week, I delved into the amazing online resources available through services like Ancestry, Newspapers.com, and other resources that until now I had only explored for my own family of birth – realizing that in many ways, the Milbrats were my grandma and grandpa of the spirit. What I found was a bit surprising. Oscar, born in 1893 in Alabama, had been a grocer in Orange county – and had been married previously, in Yucatan Mexico in 1925. (It really is remarkable the information one can find on these services!)   Apparently his first wife had unsuccessfully filed for divorce, according to a short newspaper article in Santa Ana that she had filed a police report for her husband being too noisy in repairing her roof!  She passed in 1957, and two years later he married Beatrice – he was 66, she was 51, and the daughter I had thought was theirs, was only his.  After he passed in 1985, he was laid to rest back in Orange County, beside his first wife, not Beatrice – and so, childless, she perhaps today is largely forgotten.  But, not by me.   

There are all kinds of angels in our lives, you know.  Not like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, necessarily – not even people whose names we know, perhaps.  They may just pass through, but they give us moments of grace, love, encouragement and hope.  Even better – we can be those sources for others – it doesn’t really cost us much, if anything, to take a moment to be kind, to listen, to smile.  And I think, despite the fact that the tract home neighborhoods of the past don’t exist for us all anymore, we still have neighbors, just in a different way – online, social networks.  Our need to connect still drives us deeply within, and there are days when I lie in bed thinking – did I touch someone today?  Did I take a moment to show them care, to be as the best neighbor of all, Mr. Rogers, would – just be present with them?  

To me, the Milbrats were like Mr. AND Mrs. Rogers, right next door

Is there someone who touched your life like my neighbors? Perhaps someone who in the past, or now, is making a difference in your life that you have never really acknowledged or expressed?   Perhaps you’d like to take a moment to reach out and check on them, and say a heartfelt thanks. Or, if like the Milbrats, they have moved on – then the best way to thank and honor them is to share what they gave you, with someone who crosses your path soon.  Yes, indeed – what the world needs now is love, sweet love – for and from each of us, especially this very moment. 

I thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Milbrat – Oscar and Beatrice – Grandpa and Grandma neighbor – for your love.  Your caring, acceptance, and giving spirits.  I have to admit – I don’t measure up, by a long shot.  But perhaps, sharing their lives with you today, will help us all remember – we have the power to touch lives, moment by moment in small ways – that echo through those lives in ways we will never know.  We can reach out and together – rise.  Let us do so, today.

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of … let’s change that!