How giving thanks helps me, and a few National Native American Heritage Month Book Recs
I was raised a Catholic, and as a kid, going to church mostly consisted of trying not to fall asleep through the repetitive drone of readings, calls and responses, sermons, and hymns. Snippets of moments linger in my memories, like Father Micelli reminding everyone at the start of Lent that, no, this would not be the year he gave up smoking again. Or in the dead of summer, him acknowledging how hot it was and acknowledging the church’s lack of air conditioning, and that, yes, he would keep the sermon short. I remember Father Micelli as a quiet, patient person. The nuns who ran the church’s school were a lot cheekier and more fun than he was, but in totality, the religious leaders in my young life offered an example of faith propelled by kindness and grace that grew to feel quite at odds with the judgmental institution from which I distanced myself as an adult.
I remember only one sermon from those times. The messenger was a visiting priest whose name and face I do not remember. He spoke on gratitude. (And possibly also commented on the heat—August humidity in Georgia is no joke.)
We should be grateful to God on a daily basis, he told us, possibly even more often than that, if the situation calls for it. Specifically, he said we should thank God for the hard things, big and small. The annoyances and challenges, like fender benders and milk spilling on the carpet.
Thank you, God, for the bad things. By them, I will learn and grow, and thanking God for being faced with an annoying situation will sound just silly enough that maybe I’ll laugh at myself and that laughter will make me feel better.
Yes, that was part of the sermon. Thank God, and if you laugh at yourself in the process, well, great! Laughter is healing! The priest’s point, I guess, was that God is always all around us and by thanking him—by invoking his presence through our gratitude—we’re not merely acknowledging the challenge before us, but inviting his grace into our hearts to help us overcome it. Thus, gratitude, like laughter, is also healing. I say “I guess” now because as a kid, I took the whole thing literally. I thanked God if I stubbed my toe and other things like that all the time. Indeed, I laughed in doing so. I also rolled my eyes at myself, irked at my relentless, rule-abiding piety.
I still do it: roll my eyes and think, “Thank you,” when something happens that annoys, angers, irks, etc. It usually sounds sarcastic in my head, perhaps because I can’t believe that despite how thoroughly unreligious I now consider myself, the rituals and comforts of my youth simply won’t let go. (For the record, it’s the humans who run the institution I have a problem with. God or what have you has probably washed her hands of all of us humans at this point.) These days, forcing myself to use gratitude in the face of negativity is more self-motivation than prayer, a way to recenter myself before frustration pushes my temper off the rails. Needless to say, it doesn’t always work. But the feeling of being thankful truly is a balm, and it’s comforting to know that things don’t always have to be good or easy for me or you or anyone to get to feel grateful.
Life for many of us remains extra hard even after so many months of hardness, so Thanksgiving Day couldn’t come at a better time. This year, I won’t just be celebrating Thanksgiving. I shall wallow in it.
November Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins - This book is a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred exploration of postpartum life for an artist who yearns for her pre-child self’s creativity, vitality and freedom. It’s also an ode to her mother as well as a marijuana-induced escape fantasy of the kind only a white woman could get away with. You’ll hate her selfishness, empathize with her pain and respect her (perhaps grudgingly so) for daring to act on both so thoroughly.
Currently on my night stand
The Removed by Brandon Hobson - I’m only a few pages into this one, which I grabbed from the library’s shelf on National Native American Heritage Month.
What the kids are reading these days
Who Would Win: Wolverine vs. Tasmanian Devil - Both of my daughters are obsessed with this series of books, which lay out facts about a pair of fierce animals and consider what might happen if they ever got into a fight. The six-year-old picked this one up from the school library recently. My money was on the Tasmanian Devil (perhaps an old Looney Tunes bias) but — spoiler alert! — wolverines are apparently no shrinking violets.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney - My 10-year-old is an excellent reader, but sometimes struggles with staying interested in the books she picks up. I challenged her to pick up a book from a series she had not read before and/or one not involving fantasy, and this was her answer.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak - Acquired via my Reading is a Lifestyle book subscription from Shelves Bookstore, which I’ve probably mentioned before and could not recommend more. Whether you choose one book per month or one every three months (a newly added option), Shelves owner Abigail will curate yours like a champion. If you join, tell her I sent you.
In Honor of National Native American Heritage Month, with links to Indigenous-owned bookstores.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie - This book is dripping with open-hearted sincerity that totally ruined me. As a story about a teenage boy, the story hits all the beats you'd expect of the new-kid-in-high-school genre, but it's unflinching portrayal of life on an Indian reservation pushes the narrative into something else altogether. That its young hero finds hope and beauty in a life that seems to have little of either is as miraculous as the humor and heart with which author Sherman Alexie infuses into what would otherwise be a deeply depressing story. I laughed. I cried. I wanted more. All around wonderful.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot - This wrenching memoir is told through language distilled to its most powerful concentration. Mailhot's voice feels essential because we hear so few like it, and it's painful to understand just how hard she has had to work as a Native woman not to be forgotten. She addresses her lover directly through most of it, but the "you" sometimes works as a reminder that the reader is part of the harsh world in which Native women and abuse victims must contend with. It's not an easy read, but quick and important.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich - If you loved Little House on the Prairie, this book, also the first of a series, is something of a companion piece that considers the lives of the Native tribes whose lives were attacked as the pioneers American education presents with such a whitewashed view pushed west. The young girl at its center reminds us that the horrors inflicted on Native Americans were inflicted on children too, but she also tells her story with hope, and enduring faith in her family, people and customs. I read it to my older daughter when she was a baby and hope to revisit it with her in the future.