Gratitude and Joy

“The real gift of gratitude is the more grateful you are, the more present you become.” – Robert Holden

I spend about an hour or so every morning meditating and writing in my journal. It is a habit that I only aspired to do when I lived in Washington but has become a vital part of my existence in Paris, especially the past several months. As I was doing so this morning, watching the sunrise and feeling especially grateful for being able to do so this Thanksgiving Day, I found myself writing words not just for myself but for others and so felt compelled to write, for the first time in months, here.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. There’s a quietness to it – at least in my experience – that is often lost in other holidays.

As a child, I can remember waking up to the smell of the turkey I had helped my mother stuff the night before. I don’t think that I have a single childhood memory of the holiday that didn’t start with me standing by my mothers side, watching her cut up and cook the turkey giblets in sautéed onions. Something that I found thoroughly disgusting but which she was insistent on being a vital step to making sure that the stuffing has just the right flavor (it wasn’t until I played with my own variations of her stuffing as I grew older that I realized how right she was). I took joy in helping her stuff every nook and cranny of the bird and then the pan before watching it go into the oven to slowly cook overnight. The result was morning air filled with the aroma of sage and butter wafting up from the kitchen. I would cuddle myself deeper into my bed, absorbing the dreaminess of the buttery cloud surrounding me, until I would hear the creek of the oven door opening. Knowing that this was my mother checking on the bird, I would promptly hop out of bed and run down to steal a breakfast taste of the bird that we would enjoy later in the day. The days were spent in a luxuriously lazy manner, staying in my PJs most of the day and laying on my mother’s lap taking in her love. There never seemed to be a real care in the world. And even when we were going through the most difficult of times, be it emotionally or financially, my mother was always able to somehow make those worries disappear if only for that day.

As an adult, many of our Thanksgiving Day traditions changed, as is want to happen. After law school and moving to Washington, I stopped spending the day with my parents, choosing instead to spend it with a series of friends that were slowly becoming my “framily.” There were times that I hosted, starting the holiday with my childhood tradition of preparing and stuffing the bird to cook overnight, and times that I was hosted, coming with loaded arms of homemade sides and baked goodies. I slowly created new traditions: lazy mornings lounging in bed; long runs through the city, along the National Mall, and meandering along the Potomac; speeding my car down the main arteries of the city, reveling in the empty streets; and hours upon hours laughing with friends. Though these were new traditions, they echoed many of the ones that I had as a child. Thanksgiving was always a day not just of rest, but of pure gratitude for the deep sense of peace and belonging that it brought.

Since moving to Paris, I have struggled to find my new traditions. Since it is a holiday not celebrated here, albeit recognized, there has been – to date – an oddness in the feeling of the day. Being held on a Thursday when the rest of the city is normally absorbed in its usual buzz, it hasn’t felt right to embark on some of the old traditions. As such, the day was effectively postponed, held off to be enjoyed until the following weekend when I would gather with new friends who were – again – slowly becoming family. There were new joys found in this because, despite what many thought, the people I celebrated with weren’t a cabal of American expats gathering to mirror traditions from home. Rather, they were a hodgepodge of nationalities – of French, Germans, Eastern Europeans, Australians and Brits. I took joy in ribbing the Brits about celebrating a holiday that was, in effect, another celebration of American independence from them, laughing at how the French always found some connection to distinctly American things really having their roots in France (and therefore we really have them to thank), and reveling in the fact that although I was generally the only American in the room so many from the around the world wanted to share in the spirit of the day.

This year has brought its own challenges – not just for celebrating Thanksgiving but generally. I have spent the past several weeks and month navigating a murky place of knowing so many chapters are closing without knowing what is to come next. There have been times where I have felt that all of the doors were closing – feeling a relationship coming to an end despite the presence of deep and true love, restricted in movement generally when I most need to explore, and pitching projects that continually seem just out of reach of closing. Its often left me desperately gasping for air and searching for where the windows were opening. As I have sought to understand the meaning of it all – the lessons to be taken from the emotional pain and frustration of all of the ups and downs of the past few months – I have turned increasingly to practices of gratitude, to focusing on the positives and beauty of each moment in order to keep myself mired in any pain. And, it has brought me amazing peace and release. It has helped me to gain perspective – to understand that as difficult these times feel personally, they are filled with boundless beauty in even the most difficult of them. It has helped me understand – not to sound cliche but – how good I have it. And, to recognize the true existential suffering others are going through and to seek out ways – albeit small ones – to help.

As I got up this morning, I couldn’t help but feel the deepest of gratitude and joy thinking about this. In a year that has taken so much from so many, I am healthy, those that I love are healthy, and we are all happy and safe. And though we will not be spending today or the holidays together, this year has brought me – in many ways – closer than ever to so many. There is increased honesty and ease in that honesty; of genuine joy without jealously in triumphs realized (especially the small ones); of recognition no longer of just the capabilities of others but appreciation and respect for limitations.

Due to the confinement and associated travel restrictions in France right now, I am celebrating Thanksgiving – and perhaps even Christmas – alone this year. But I do not feel lonely, maybe for the first time in a long time. I am making this day a beautiful one, filled with new traditions that – again – echo my old: a morning spent writing, a long run in the shadow of Sacre Coeur (within my 1km movement limit, of course), an afternoon of painting and then a Thanksgiving meal (prepared and delivered by Treize Jardin, the only place in Paris where you can get real Southern buttermilk biscuits) spent on the phone with my mother and friends. And, though this day is different that I had hoped, in some ways it is richer than I could have expected. For I know it will be filled with so many moments of joy – moments that I am deeply grateful now to fully recognize and embrace. And I know now that things may not always work out as we hope, but they always work out as they should.