It’s a challenge to shift into gratitude mode. I’ve been hearing about how people are coping with not being able to be with family at this time of year. Sharing favorite family dishes door to door. Zoom meals. Zoom meal preparation. Hiking alone over the holiday and spending the solitary time in nature making of list of what to be grateful for.
Isolation at holidays is a family tradition for myself and my husband. With no kids, and no relatives within driving distance, and friends with families within driving distance spending their Thanksgivings and Christmases with their families, we have, for the last several years, spent these holidays alone.
It’s always kind of lonely and sad. I mean, I am a solitary person—an introvert with extrovert qualities—but I do miss collaboration with friends. And family. These traditional American holidays were, as I was growing up, mostly happy times. Our traditional American family had its flaws as all families do, but I’d say they were manageable flaws—despite the vagaries of personality and the ownership of power and the blind acceptance of that ownership—we all got together now and then and get along pretty well when we do.
Ours was a nuclear family in that we went atomic and split apart. It was my most fervent wish to expel myself from my parents. At seventeen, accepted to college, I moved from home and never lived with them again. I even moved nearly 3000 miles away for a while. (That is another story). Each one of us fled. One to the east coast. One to the Pacific Northwest. One to other parts of the Bay Area where we grew up.
One regrettable choice my siblings and I made was to not have children.
Well, one sibling did want them, but alas, was unable.
So, no children. No grandchildren. So, family holidays? Meh.
My reasons for eschewing motherhood were pretty sound. I couldn’t hang onto a good relationship if I was drowning in the ocean and all I had to hold onto was a beachball. And by the time I found stability with the wild man who became my husband—easily tamable but with, like all feral beasts, a tendency to bite—I didn’t relish the thought of having a nearly adult teenager when I was in the decade of one’s life where one is considering social security and medicare.
My oldest sibling’s reasons for not embracing motherhood were not my own, and of course I thought hers were unreasonable reasons, but no less as unreasonable as mine. My other sibling married a very wonderful man—for her—who was leery of kids but willing to give it a shot. I kinda wish I had a niece or nephew of that sort.
The husband’s siblings procreated, but we are not really a part of their lives either. They move around, they live in different states, and as the husband likes to say, they are crazy. My prejudices are obvious in the fact that my favorite is my husband’s son from a previous marriage. But he lives in Germany so, well, there you are.
I hope this little holiday missive doesn’t sound self-pitying. It’s hard enough to get through this time of year without feeling sorry for someone else. I took one of my long walks on Thanksgiving, late morning, and my neighbors were doing their best. Many were out like me, walking each other and their dogs. We all waved and smiled. A handful of homes were engulfed by cars of visiting relatives, but no judging. Not today. One family was having a gathering in their open garage, multi-family adults in jackets and masks standing around a couple kids playing with toys in the garage center. That was pretty cool.
Shifting from regrets—many—to gratitudes—also many—is like changing a habit. The glass of wine at five o’clock. The morning crossword. The afternoon nap. If you have pets, feeding time. If you have kids, well, their schedule becomes your schedule, at least for approximately 20 years. We prefer order to chaos. Thus, we become wedded to certain thoughts, even if they don’t feel good. Listing blessings generally arises from comparison. One’s good health, when compared to someone without it. One’s warm home, when compared to someone without one. One’s family and friends, when compared to someone lonely and alone. One’s ability to write a sentence, when compared to one who cannot read. One’s love of nature, compared to one who is struggling to feed and clothe their family.
In this month’s Smithsonian magazine is an article about dogs and the science of cognition. Researchers are looking at parallels between how dogs interact with us, and how we perceive interacting with other beings. One finding we can’t deny. When people and dogs look each other in the eyes, oxytocin levels rise in both creatures. However, when my English mastiff Conan is staring at me as I eat dinner, I think he’s transmitting a message: I’m here and you could give me a treat because I am here. But then, when he lies down beside us and rests his chin on the husband’s knee, I think it’s because he’s in love.
Now I close, with gratitude, pondering the mystery of what my cat is thinking when he stares at me.