There were no ceramic pumpkins on the table this year to mark the occasion. We didn’t eat off of grandma’s white plates with the brown flower pattern around the edges that were just retro enough to be cool again. There was no playing in the yard after dinner, the crunching of autumn leaves under our feet. I didn’t hear the sounds of football games playing in the background, the predictable soundtrack of Thanksgiving.
There were crucial traditions missing, vital family members absent from around the table. Perhaps it was the most unconventional holiday meal we’ll ever have as a family. But still, those old familiar smells lingered in the air when the covers were taken off the foil trays. If you closed your eyes with the smell of sage and nutmeg hovering in the air, you could easily pretend we were in my parent’s kitchen.
Instead, we were bumping knees around a tiny table in the back of an ICU family waiting room. Thanksgiving Day was still a week and a half away but in two more days I would be on a plane to the other side of the world again and this would be another memory in this dream-like break from reality.
All that week my shaky smile answered the frequent questions of, “are you happy to be home?” The answer was too complex to unpack in the kind of casual conversation most people wanted to have after seeing me for the first time in a year. Those who knew me well enough to stop for the deeper story knew not to ask that question.
Happy was a loaded word. My arms were finally able to lock around my sister after days of weeping and longing to be near to her. I was grateful to be able to be at her side instead of 8400 miles away. My heart was heavy when the first tearful words we exchanged in person were about her husband’s second emergency surgery after his aneurysm less than a week before.
Home was a loaded word. I expected to feel strange driving for the first time again, seeing these streets that were so empty compared to the overcrowded ones I had become accustomed to in South Asia. But I easily navigated the roads as if on autopilot, quickly fell back into step with my old life. I expected to feel at home in the presence of my parents but I couldn’t completely relax when my family was fractured. I sat on the other side of an 11-hour time difference, waiting by the phone to talk to my husband and kids in the tiny snatches of time when both sides of the globe were awake.
This wasn’t the holiday any of us dreamed of. My sister said we’d cancel Thanksgiving dinner this year. How could we celebrate when days were spent in a waiting room and half of our family was missing?
It was the holiday God had given us though...
It's such a small thing; it couldn't possibly have that big of an impact. It's just like the small bud of a flower, the ones we watch developing daily on the plants that grow in the nursery right outside the window of our fifth-floor flat. It's such a small thing—that negative thought. That complaint, that fleeting feeling of guilt or shame, that sideglance at the thing someone has done to annoy me.
But here's the truth about small things: They always grow. I find myself constantly admiring the vibrant pink tendrils of the bougainvilleas all over the city, which start small but take over whole verandas and sides of buildings. My thoughts have been doing the same thing lately. I started to notice it early in the month when my attitude turned sour and my insides felt raw. I was on the edge of tears whenever anyone said a word to me and couldn't understand why.
The next day I kept my mobile phone on me throughout the day and typed a quick sentence every few minutes. Wherever I felt my thoughts taking me, I took note of it. Reading over them at the end of the day, I felt as if I was beating my way through an overgrown path where thistles scraped at me and branches clawed at my skin. One negative bud had turned into a full-grown thought-life that brought nothing but death.
I was shocked at what I found when I took the time to slow down and look inside. Lies had woven themselves around my heart and crowded out the truth and joy of God's Word. Transitions are hard and painful things, to be sure. Five months into life in South Asia we are deep in the feelings of inadequacy and failure, of uncertainty and culture-shock. But I was letting all of those hard feelings define me and I knew it had to stop or they were going to choke the life out of me.
So even though it kind of felt like that old recurring dream of showing up in front of your entire class naked, I typed up a call for help on facebook. I brought the dark thoughts of failure and fear I was having into the light for all to see. I went to bed while most of my friends and family on the other side of the world were waking, into a deep sleep that never feels like enough these days. I woke with a vulnerability hangover. Ugh, should I have said those things? I groggily unlocked my phone and the tears that had threatened for weeks came tumbling down and continued throughout the day as the comments poured in. Over 40 friends in 6 different countries responded with messages of support, with prayers and encouragement, with "I've been there" and "Thank you for your honesty."
I'd love to say that one act of confession freed me from the shame that has wrapped itself so fully around my heart but it is a daily battle, a choice to speak the truth into the darkness and a discipline to find thankfulness in the midst of the monotony and loneliness that mark early expat life.
There's a simple exercise mentioned by Barbara Brown Taylor in her memoir Leaving Church and made popular again recently by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy who says: "Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life." Taylor asks the question: What is saving your life right now?
In the midst of countless little deaths every day (the convenience of driving a car or easily getting around a city, the access to outdoor space to play, the access to friends and family, the freedom to write in a busy season of language school), I have to stop living in the grief of it all and finding little joys, things that are giving me life, saving my life.
This week it's been as simple as taking a few minutes to have cha at a roadside stand with friends from language school, choosing to not study for a night and watch a couple hours of TV with my husband instead, finishing that Easter watercolor so that there was something of the season in our home, listening to Elevation Worship's Do It Again on a loop, and making myself get out of the house and go to a church service in the local language. I didn't understand many words but I raised my hands to the beautiful beating of the drum and the chaotic and heavenly sound of a roomful of voices lifted in prayer all at the same time. I felt closer to God at that moment than if I'd known every word that had been uttered that night. It was not just choosing to do those things but stopping to notice them, to relish in them and thank God for them.
Today when the darkness feels like it is choking out the life that is but a tiny seedling, I have to make the choice again and again. Will I let this hope be smothered or beat back the darkness? Will I choose to let joy grow?
I love fall. Something about fall in the south just lights my spirit up. When I moved years ago to the Gulf Coast and there were no changing leaves, I grieved for the missing season.
The changing leaves and crispness in the air are a relief after stifling summer. The cool nights remind me of many evenings by the football field and the freeness of youth. And then there is pumpkin everywhere. The way to my heart is pumpkin cake, scones, cookies. Seriously.
But I also love the feeling of slowing down and intentionally being thankful. It is only early October but as I go through my fall decorations, I see the words "give thanks" and I am reminded of the necessity of this season. Summer passes in a blur of fun events and then school comes barrelling in. The craziness of the Christmas season is around the corner.
In the middle is this breath of fresh air to me. A little quiet. Time to be grateful.
I don't think anyone speaks more prolifically or beautifully about gratitude than Ann Voskamp. I have poured over her blogs on gratitude over the past few years, written lists of all I have to be thankful for with thousands of others after reading 1,000 gifts, and used her printables to talk about thankfulness with my family.
I will be getting a little tree ready soon - a simple branch from the back yard. We will cut out little paper leaves and hang them from string. Nothing fancy. Just a reminder to us every day to write out our prayers of thanks to God. We need these reminders every November.
I need them daily. It is so easy to let my heart get caught up in the noise, in the "what if's" and "why nots" and oh, the "have nots." They are deadly to a quiet heart.
But thankfulness is life to our spirits and quiet to our busy hearts.
"Happiness isn’t something you ever achieve, but only receive — like a gift. Like taking now as an unexpected gift of keys that will open you to more of God," says Voskamp.
I think that is why I really love fall. Nestled between the stifling heat and the bitter cold is a cool breeze and quietly falling leaves. It comes with the promise of a thankful heart, a quiet heart - open to more of God.
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