On Wednesday morning, Mike and I got up and went for a walk. For months and months, I have been asking him to walk with me to an old graveyard that is close to our house, and he finally agreed to go with me. We put on sweatshirts and took our coffee and headed over. It was older than I had thought it would be, with graves back to the 1850s, and we were both moved to see that some of the families had lost a lot of children in a short span of time. This might sound strange, but the graveyard was such a pleasant place to spend an hour that morning. Not so much the newer, fancier part, but the older part, with the headstones that were obviously hand-carved, with the people’s ages represented in years, months, and days . . . it was sweet. And real. It might not be the normal way to spend time on Thanksgiving weekend, but this was a weekend where a lot of things I have been thinking about death and sharing life and really living all kind of came together, so it ended up being one of the best things we could have done, to go to a place where life and death are honored in such a tangible way.
Before Thanksgiving, Mike and I watched Pieces of April, as we do every year. (I am honestly not sure whether we watched it last year. I can’t imagine that I was like, “Sure, we should totally watch a movie about the black sheep of the family hosting Thanksgiving. While her mother is dying.” But maybe we did, since it is our tradition.) It was different to watch it this year. I had a completely different perspective on what April was probably feeling, and the ending struck me in a completely different way. Before this year, I had always felt like they probably just ran out of money, and that’s why the ending was so abrupt. But now I feel like the ending was in small moments and snapshots because that’s what they will remember about their mother’s last Thanksgiving. They won’t remember it like a film. It will be in bits and pieces. Knowing what my own holiday recollections are like, it seemed much more realistic and appropriate than everyone having the right words. It was everyone trying, and we (the audience) saw that, and that was enough.
What really struck me, though, was when, at some point, April was talking about Thanksgiving and said that it was important because it was a day when everyone realized they needed each other. At my grandma’s house on Thursday, I felt that, too. I guess a visual representation of that is the meal, how each person brings a few dishes . . . and then suddenly there’s an entire meal (and then some) on the counter. I felt it in the conversation, in the way the men in my family come together to take care of my grandma’s needs, and, yes, in the food. I don’t see my relatives all that often, and I don’t always know exactly what we have in common, but . . . they are willing to eat my pie and tell me they enjoyed it. That means something to me, you know? It means something that I have people I can bake for, and it means something that I can trust my family enough to try recipes out on them.
On Friday, after our Christmas decorating, I read Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr. I did, in fact, read the whole book. I couldn’t put it down. (And, to be honest, earlier that day I finished The Golden Compass, so I finished two books that day. I also finished two books on Saturday. It was quite a productive reading weekend.) I wanted to read it because of it being a finalist for the National Book Award, and because I have read the author’s blog and she seems wonderful. And the book, though I don’t think I will write it up, was also wonderful in ways I am not sure I can articulate. Though my life is very different from that of the main character, there was a scene in the book where she was sitting at a table with her friend, her best friend, and she was absolutely unable, because of her own junk, to be the kind of friend she knew she was supposed to be. She was not able to say the right things. She was not able to offer a hug. Instead, she sat there and ripped a hole in the plastic booth she was sitting in.
Oh, how I know that girl. I think I am not completely her anymore, but I still find, from time to time, that I don’t always say the things that are on my heart or offer to hug someone because I don’t know how to say them, because I am afraid. Afraid of being rejected, of being too emotional, of people thinking I’m weird, of it being the wrong response. But I don’t want to dwell on that, either, because I do see how far I have come, that I am much better at reaching out to people and risking my heart. Even a small thing, like making a pie, has, in the past, been fraught with peril. But I can remember specific things that have happened this year where I stood at a crossroads, and instead of playing it safe, I chose to offer the hug to someone I don’t normally hug. I chose to try the difficult recipe. I chose to say what was on my heart. I haven’t done it all of the time, but the memories of trying are like stones in my pocket, and I run my fingers over them from time to time to remind myself of what I am capable of.
One of the books I finished on Saturday was a book of poetry by Mark Jarman that I worked on for a few weeks. I have been trying to read more poetry, and I have been trying to really take it in when I do read it. One of the poems in that particular book was, oddly enough, about sharing your heart with people. It closed with the line, “You can’t take it with you. Why not leave it with me?” It was such a reminder for me of all the things I have been learning: to make the move and extend the hand, to make decisions that allow me to spend time with friends and family, to be wise about where I invest myself. That last one is pretty important, too, because I have spent a lot of time worrying about the opinions of people whose opinions really shouldn’t matter. I still do, to some degree, but it’s another area where (I hope) I have made some progress.
This is all kind of a mess, I know, but in my head there is a thread connecting it, and I hope you can see glimpses of it here and there. I have learned a lot in the past year and a half about friendship, about choosing the people who really matter, and about opening myself up because life can be so short. It has looked like different things – entering a chili contest that I didn’t win, entering a Scholastic contest that I did win (well, Mike did, anyway). Standing in the sanctuary and hugging my friend. Learning how to bake. Making the phone call that was hard for me. Choosing to enter a friend’s grief rather than focusing on my own. Taking another job. Joining a book club with people who impress and intimidate me. I want to honor my dad by really living life the way he did, and I want to honor God by making the most of the life that he gives us here on earth.
In the end, that’s what I am most thankful for this year: that I am here, that I have a chance to keep on trying to get it right with the people I love. Maybe one day I won’t need a specific Thursday in November to help me remember that.