The Gratitude Tree

First Published November 18, 2014, on Leah's former blog, "Being In Berkeley."

Yesterday stank.  It was one of those Mondays that just can't be redeemed.  It was one of those Mondays that felt like living in a National Lampoons movie. If you were watching it on the screen, it would feel cathartic to laugh at how many things are going wrong in these peoples' lives, but since you're not watching it, you're actually living it, you just want to slam the door to the bathroom - while the kids are screaming and smoke is spilling out of the fireplace rendering the air in the living room unbreathable - and sink onto the floor and rock feverishly back and forth.  And then drink wine.  That was yesterday.

We started today hung-over from the miserable Monday.  The girls were up, and loud, and needing help early, before any of us should have had to put feet on the floor.  Overwhelmed by the thought of another day of the same frustrations, Jason and I were cranky and irritable, eye-rolling and snapping at one another in an uncharacteristic way.  We exchanged a perfunctory embrace before he and our son hopped on their bikes and rode off for the day, leaving me feeling hollow and lonely, on top of pre-coffee exhausted: not a good combination.

But today wasn’t the same as yesterday.  The girls were actually fairly compliant through breakfast, for the most part sitting at the table, eating, and chatting away, giving me the space to make coffee.  As we went through the rest of the morning routine, there was only one minor toddler meltdown by the time they were both dressed, which is pretty good in our house these days.  After getting dressed, the girls found some toys they wanted to play with and they seemed to actually be playing nicely.  Holding my breath, I stepped back and for a moment, watched them play.  Then slowly, ever so slowly I crept into my room, closed the door, and sank onto the bed.  And then I started to breathe.  Really breathe.

Sometimes my prayer life is extremely verbose and chatty.  Other times, all I’m trying to do is distill my mind and spirit enough that I can actually sense Emmanuel - God with me.  Today was one of those days.  For fifteen minutes or so I sat on my bed and invited Divine Presence.  I said “Come” again and again in my mind’s voice.  I heard the shouting, and laughing, and clanging right outside my room, but I chose not to listen to it.  And there, in that space, I was comforted.  Nothing in my circumstances had changed, but in the midst of trying times, I felt clearly that I was not alone in them.  Armed with that hope, I gathered myself and re-entered the rest of the house.


Our first Gratitude Tree.

Our first Gratitude Tree.

And that’s when I saw the Gratitude Tree.  The tree is a family project I started a couple of weeks ago in an effort to bring some meaning for my kids to Thanksgiving.  I think in my children's minds the last Thursday in November is basically the holiday, filled with food that they don’t like, that they have to get past so they can start all the fun Christmas activities.  Wanting to bring something more to it this year, I bought a cardboard tree at the store, cut out some leaves, and invited my family to hang a leaf on the tree as a “thank you” each day. 

Our family already has a habit of relating our highlights of the day over dinner.  The kids (even two-year-old Gwen) each love telling us their “rose” (the best part of the day), their “thorn” (the worst), and their “bud” (what they’re looking forward to).  This month, after dinner, we added the practice most days of writing down their “rose” on a leaf and adding it to the tree. “Each of these things is something we can say ‘thank you’ to Jesus for, and when we put them all together on the tree, we realize how much we have to be thankful for,” I explained to them.

But today the Gratitude Tree wasn’t an object lesson for my children; it was there for me.  When I saw the tree as I left my room, I was reminded that gratitude is almost always a choice.  I could return to lamenting my yesterday, grumbling about my morning, and looking ahead to the future frustrations of the day as confirmations that the universe is conspiring against me, or I could say “thank you” for the moment of grace I had just experienced.  I chose the latter.  Rather than wait for the end of the day, I decided there and then to pick up a pen and a leaf and write my thanks.

The moment of grace didn’t last long.  A few minutes later, I discovered the reason my girls had been so occupied, along with the significant mess I’d need to clean up because of it.  Moments into that endeavor, my toddler entered full-on meltdown-mode over a toy and I was back in the midst of trying to train a kicking and screaming toddler to share.  But though the frustrations resumed, as I looked at the tree, the gratitude remained.  And somehow, it really helped.

I think after Thanksgiving is over and Advent beings, rather than packing up and storing it, I may have to find a new home for the Gratitude Tree.  Life will always present stressors, anxieties, and reasons to grumble.  But the tree reminds me that those difficulties aren’t the full story.  There may be messes, and screams, and smoke, and poop (lots of poop).  But there’s also beauty and friendship and laughter and snuggles and Emmanuel.  There really are a lot of leaves on that tree.