During summer days we roasted on ladders, scraping and painting our little red house. My sister wore her impossibly orange bikini and basted with baby oil. I wore cutoffs and brought the radio. Never venturing beyond the first story, we must have dribbled half a gallon of stain on the driveway, but at $1 an hour, management wasn’t complaining.
At the end of our shifts, we would wrap the brushes in foil and tuck them in the freezer.
Dubbed “the eternally painted house” by the neighbors, it was perhaps only a marginal improvement over the salmon eyesore it had been.
For years, my mother kept a button exactly like the one pictured above tucked in a secretary desk in her bedroom. The desk was quite small and finished in country white, with an old-fashioned brass keyhole which was never locked. I would sneak into the room and unfold the desk, revealing all its odd treasures. My mother’s address book was kept there, bulging with notes and corners torn from Christmas card envelopes–so many that she held it shut with an oversized rubber band. There were also cubbies filled with neat little piles of precious papers, an empty jelly jar of dull pencils…and that button.
I looked at the button a lot. I remember its exact size and weight, the sharp barb of the pin. It was not the safety pin sort, but the kind that always protrudes, stabbing mindlessly at curious fingers.
When I consider it now, it is strange how much attention I paid to the little knick-knack. I suppose it looks impossibly mundane, but I loved it. You do gotta have art, I knew. We all knew. Between four siblings, we have studied modern dance, ballet, and theater, violin, piano, painting, photography, string bass, electric bass, viola, clarinet, drums. We got that message. And I loved the pun–“you gotta have heart”–another message taught repeatedly. But the pin’s motto had yet another layer for our family; my father’s name is Art.
We needed art and heart and Art.
I’ve been thinking about that button because my father would have been 85 today, and it is the first birthday to pass without him. As expected, I still need him.
I was a little tender already, then, when I took our three ailing foster kittens in for yet another vet appointment this morning. They have giardia, and though medicated, it’s not improving. One has eye infections, and one started bleeding. Caring for them has been nerve-wracking–they are so tiny, so fragile–and a pain in the neck. I never knew that diarrhea could be tracked up walls, on sinks, floors, doors, cabinets. Up the sides of the cat carrier. Matted in furry tails and feet and backs. How do you get poop on your back, my wee pals? Consequently, we’ve been laundering and bleaching the downstairs three times a day, and still can’t keep up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the vet told me they would keep the kittens at the shelter instead of sending them back home with me. I should have been relieved.
Instead, I was shocked. My anxiety and love for the kittens, plus the frustration that I couldn’t help them, suddenly got confused with my overwhelming grief for my father, and I stood there, eyes welling over the exam table.
The vet smiled and closed the cat carrier. “Say goodbye to the kitties,” she said. “Nice and quick like a bandaid.” And that was it.
I walked out to the parking lot and sat in the car until I could see well enough to drive.
But unlike the proverbial bandaid, the sting has lingered all day.
I was the youngest of four in a house with a cat and a dog, plus the occasional hamster, hermit crab, and a series of chameleons who would disappear and mysteriously wind up in the dryer. Despite this, my mother tried valiantly to keep tabs on me. At nine, when I was caught trying to read Sybil and Go Ask Alice, she repeatedly warned against inappropriate reading material.
Instead, I filched my sister’s copy of The Shining. I propped my social studies textbook on end and hid it inside, reading voraciously while Mrs. Denevan tended to the more flamboyant rulebreakers.
In honor of the upcoming holiday, I wanted to take a moment to think about gratitude.
If that sentence gave you the heebie jeebies, join the club. For some unknown reason, I have a deep-seated repulsion for Chicken Soup-y type aphorisms and daily meditations.
Perhaps it is accentuated by the cliché art and bad fonts which typically accompany such things.
Don’t get me wrong. I love sunsets. In fact, I would be thrilled to be present for the moment depicted above. But what’s great about the setting sun over the lake is definitely not the cloying overscript on a two-dimensional reproduction.
Moreover, just because I won’t hang that poster doesn’t mean I have a beef with fostering gratitude. On the contrary! Gratitude is essential. I’m working on this often, striving to be a better person, and I certainly don’t want my kids to grow up to be selfish brutes. So…presenting…
A brief discussion of gratitude in a sans serif style.
Semi-recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, and Family Circle once again outline that teaching gratitude to your kids is important. Do it.
Why? Fostering gratitude doesn’t just make more tolerable people; it makes happier people. Jeffrey Froh (PsyD) did a study with middle schoolers. He asked one group to list up to five things for which they were grateful everyday for two weeks. Another group listed hassles, and the last group filled out surveys. The first group showed a marked jump in optimism and overall well-being that extended for a while, even after the study was completed. Those students also had a more positive attitude about school in general. Feeling grateful boosts happiness, gives people better perspective in life, and improves relationships at home, school, and work.
To sum up what I’ve learned…most experts recommend:
Model gratitude. Big surprise. Thank your kids. Thank your significant other. Thank friends, cashiers, relatives, teachers, baristas, maybe even the DMV clerk. After all, it must be a sucky job.
Give positive reinforcement. Even just “hey, thanks for noticing.” or “I appreciate your comment,” can help the set a pattern of behavior.
Give them less. Have kids work toward something they want, do chores, earn money. Let them know the value of an item. I could buy you those shoes, but then we can’t order pizza tonight. Lost a backpack? Help earn a new one. Talk about how work hours translate into garbage pick up, electricity, gasoline, vacation. Read aloud Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In addition to being a humorous and vivid story, it discusses hard work, chores, about wasting nothing. There is also a great discussion about the value of a silver dollar that Almanzo would like to spend at the fair. Another book recommendation: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. If that doesn’t make you appreciate having heat and food on the table, I don’t know what will. Amazing.
Volunteer as a family. We’ve started very small. We collect our change and bring it to CoinStar periodically, which allows us to select a charity and send it electronically. What could be simpler? It teaches them that even pennies and nickels can add up to something significant. We’ve also baked cookies and given them out to homeless people, sold cupcakes to raise money for charities, and currently we foster kittens for the SPCA.
Coach when appropriate. I often have my kids make their own purchases, even when they are using my money. I remind them to say thank you (before or after the transaction, not during. I try to avoid barking at them while they are mid-transaction) and ask them to leave a tip when appropriate. They need little nudges along the way. “I was disappointed that you didn’t seem more grateful after I helped you with your homework. I could have been doing other things.” Reminding them of opportunities to be aware and thankful is not cheating.
Structure a moment of gratitude into the day. Practice, practice, practice! Gratitude is a muscle that needs exercising. Examining life for the positive helps lay new pathways in the brain, creating a positive mindset. That explains why Jeffrey Froh’s experiment had such an impact. This is big! I grew up saying grace at the table, so it feels natural to ask my kids, “What are you thankful about today?” when we sit down to eat dinner. I answer the question, too.
I highly recommend Shawn Achor’s TED talk on Happiness. Don’t be put off by its title: “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” It actually includes the happy secret to better life. There are amazing nuggets tucked in amongst some amusing anecdotes. Among them: “90% of your longterm happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” In other words, by your MINDSET. Further study has shown that increasing positivity increases creativity, energy, and intelligence, because the dopamine released not only makes us feel happiness, it turns on the learning centers of our brains.
In the last two minutes of his talk, he outlines five quick and easy ways to increase happiness–based on research and not hopeful speculation. Guess what comes in at number one? Write down three new gratitudes each day for 21 days in a row. That is why I now have a gratitude journal, though I can’t call it that, of course. The phrase “Gratitude Journal” makes me gag a little. I have a crass name which I can’t repeat here, but which makes me laugh every time I take it out. I figure that makes me happier, too.
It has recently come to my attention that a number of the most annoying things my kids do are exactly the same things I did to drive my mom crazy as a child. It would be reasonable to assume that such self-reflection would make me more patient and forgiving, but sadly this is not the case. It does prompt me to beg for my mother’s forgiveness, however. Better late than never.
I’m so sorry that I:
wandered off with the good kitchen shears/scotch tape/screwdriver/all the pens that work and then lost track of them.
dropped my backpack, coat, lunch box, boots, bags, and everything I owned in the doorway, leaving it for everyone to trip over.
used up all of the toilet paper and then proceeded to use up all of the Kleenex instead of hunting for a new roll.
interrupted you for the 23rd time in a row.
relocated my pile of stuff to the stairs when forced to remove it from the doorway.
couldn’t find my drugstore sneakers/homework/lunch/field trip slip and made everyone late, even though I said I was ready to go, and I’d spent the previous 30 minutes goofing around.
yelled “Mom!” from the top of the stairs repeatedly until you dropped everything to come to me.
left my dirty dishes everywhere but the dishwasher.
begged to stay up late and then was miserable and crabby for the next 2 days.
asked for help with homework and then said, “that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”
insisted on doing something myself and then lost it/spilled it/broke it/got hurt.
repeatedly said I did not need to use the restroom and then–five minutes down the road–suddenly had an emergency.
repeatedly rolled my eyes and said, “you don’t understand” in that egregious tween tone.
I’m well aware that these are not the worst of my transgressions, but simply reflect the level at which my kids are now competing. Here’s hoping that some of your patience and humor will eventually rub off so I manage to weather the tween years and beyond.
By the way, now I know what you mean by “what goes around comes around.”