I’ve never been a fan of expressing emotion on demand, as in, “Before we eat our turkey, let’s go around the table and everyone say three things he or she is grateful for.” If people choose to speak of their gratitude, I’m all for it. It’s the “on demand” part at which I bridle.
Don’t get me wrong: I do experience abundant gratitude and I do love Thanksgiving’s focus on it. I just don’t want to be told when and where to go public. For me, spontaneous gratitude is more powerful, more meaningful, more uplifting.
One spontaneous-gratitude moment happened when my husband and I were living in the north of Senegal for two months, in one bedroom of a house we shared with four (sometimes six) others. We gathered for breakfast every morning with Déyfatou, her husband Mamadou, and their two daughters, Ayisha (3) and Fatou (18 months).
Our housemates and breakfast buddies
Déyfatou, about 25, tall and thin, soft-voiced and shy-smiled, brought in the same breakfast fixings every day: French bread, butter and jam; a tea kettle of boiled water made over a charcoal fire behind the house; plates, cups, utensils; plastic bags holding instant coffee, tea bags, sugar cubes, coffee-creamer.
The bags were the plain-vanilla kind of bag, tied in a knot at the top. Every morning, Déyfatou opened them and we took out what we needed. (I was amazed that the instant Nescafe with dried milk, which I’d have scorned in my previous life, tasted so delicious.) Then she closed them with a knot tight enough to protect against moisture and bugs.
A knot opened, a knot tied, every day for what must have been years, judging from the appearance and feel of the bags. They were like ancient skin: very wrinkled, thin and so soft you might mistake them for suede if your eyes were closed. And likely to disintegrate.
One day, I was getting some aspirins from the personal pharmacy I’d schlepped from home. I had Ziploc bags of aspirins, ibuprofen, and Tylenol. (Yes, I had all three because I couldn’t know in advance what I’d need or want.) There was Pepto Bismol, of course, and Immodium (ditto about never knowing), daytime cold medicine, night-time cold medicine, cough syrup, malaria preventive, canker sore medicine, nose spray, and many, many, more. I was pharmaceutically prepared. Perhaps overprepared but, as I said, you never know.
And as I looked at those bags upon bags, it occurred to me that Déyfatou might like to have a few to save her from the tying and untying. And, perhaps, from one of those ancient bags dissolving in front of her very eyes. So I combined the white aspirin, brownish ibuprofen, and multi-colored Tylenol in one bag and gave Déyfatou the two newly-emptied and cleaned ones.
My bags were not the kind where you push the strips from the two sides of the opening together to join them. Oh no, these were the ultra-spiffy and ultra-convenient ones with an actual zipper at the top.
They were a huge hit. Déyfatou loved them in a way that lit her up from inside. Loved them out of all proportion to their value. Transformed her into a giggling girl as she unzipped and zipped them over and over. It was the kind of reaction every gift-giver loves.
I went through everything I’d brought with me – meds, spare batteries for the radio and flashlights, wet laundry-storage bags – to produce some 15 bags in different sizes. Enough for coffee, tea, sugar, and creamer for years to come. Each one a series of knots not tied, not untied. I was Santa Claus! I was the bag lady!
The thing is, Déyfatou wasn’t poor. Mamadou had a good job and she was his only wife. The girls had toys and bookbags and hair ribbons, all bought in Dakar. It’s even possible that if Déyfatou were in a supermarket in Dakar, she’d see the French equivalent of Ziplocs and could have bought them. They just weren’t part of her life, and, besides, why spend money on something that’s not necessary?
If called upon to say something I’m grateful for at Thanksgiving, I would never think of Ziploc bags. Yet, in that moment, I appreciated not just the bags, but also the other things in my life that I usually don’t even notice. Too many to name here.
I was grateful for the mosquito net under which we slept. And I’m grateful we don’t need one here in the U.S.
The big things I’m supremely grateful for – my family, my health, my friends, my life in a stable democracy, my material comfort – are easy to think of and, for that reason, the gratitude sometimes is a bit knee-jerk, a bit glib. But the little things that go unnoticed in the interstices bring it all home. And that gratitude is nourishing.
Would anyone out there choose to mention one of the little things in life for which he/she is grateful? Of course, you don’t have to. No pressure.
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing. She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which parts of this post are excerpted.