Gratitude

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The past seven and a half years have been both the longest and the shortest years I can remember. My husband lost his job in early February of 2009. Our lives have changed drastically over the years since then, but we had no idea the lessons we would learn over those intervening years. Off and on since then he has worked various jobs and has served in the Army Reserve to make ends meet. I’ve worked different jobs too. When I lost my teaching job in August of 2010, I was lucky enough to land one as the Writing Coach for the same school for another year, then lost that job  after the money for that position from the federal government dried up. Since then I worked at two other schools. For many reasons too numerous to mention in this post, I just left what I hope is my last job teaching high school English.

Why am I telling you all this now? With time and some perspective I’ve come to understand some important lessons in perseverance, hope, and gratitude from this very difficult time in my family’s life. If anyone else is going through hard economic times, I hope our struggle will give you hope and let you know you are not alone.

You see, our survival was a sort of “loaves and fishes” story. Honestly, when we look back at what happened to us, we marvel that we kept our home, that we managed to keep our kids in college during the recession.  They had to grow up and take on a lot more responsibility than I ever wanted them to, but I understand now that they are better for having done so. I worried and cried and wondered how we would survive, but we did. We pared down every expense we possibly could during those years and still practice austerity to a certain degree. In fact, during the 2014-2015 winter, the coldest one in years here in the Midwest, we couldn’t afford to repair our heater. I hauled wood in my pajamas, snowboots, and parka and endured the month alone, while my husband was at training in North Carolina. I woke often to temperatures in the house in the 50s, and I’m a Southerner! That was a hard winter, a metaphor really, for the whole seven years.

During our “lost decade” we decided one thing we couldn’t and didn’t want to change was the amount of money we gave to our church. We prayed about that decision and others. We prayed, and prayed some more for God to give us guidance and help, but what I found so difficult was to thank God for all that we still had. Trusting God was the hardest thing both my husband and I had to learn during these last seven years. Learning to let God take care of us when we no longer could make sense of what was  happening was difficult for us and is something we still struggle with.  When we look back at what we endured, however, the only answer to how we survived that makes any sense is God provided. Nothing else explains how we made our money last from paycheck to paycheck and how our family stayed together.

What made the blow of my husband losing his job and not being able to find another one so difficult was that we never thought we would be in that position. He was a very successful salesman, but we didn’t rely on his success. I worked too. We had done everything right. We saved the maximum for our retirement, even when I complained that we weren’t having much fun. We don’t take extravagant vacations. We saved money in an emergency fund, drove our cars forever. I don’t get manicures, pedicures, or color treatments for my hair. We wait for sales to shop. We don’t have “toys” like a boat or snowmobiles or anything like that. Like so many others who lost their jobs and livelihoods we are just average Americans trying to make a good life for our family.

Luckily, when my husband got his notice he had been “let go,” (a euphemistic term for what actually happens to someone) he also received a severance from his company, which we were extremely careful with, especially in light of the thousands of layoffs early in the first year of the recession. For two long years he searched for any job he could find.  The problem was that millions of other men and women also searched for jobs that no longer existed. Millions were scared. Millions still are. We all still bear the scars and the trauma of living with that much uncertainty for that long. We still wait for bad news because it came so often. We will never be the same, and many of us who had never been in this position before were and are too proud to explain that we don’t have the money to do  or buy what, to others, seems negligible. If you are reading this post and know someone who lost their livelihood in this recession, keep in touch with them. Let them know you care and would like to see them. That sort of connection means the world. Even though my husband is still working, and before I gave my notice this year, I was also working, we are making far less than what we once did. Reduced wages in this country are a very real problem.

My family are not the only people who went through the trauma of job loss and the anxiety that accompanies such an event. The Great Recession changed us, but it changed millions of Americans.

My hubby and I have a deep appreciation for each other, for our family, for God. We realize how little truly matters in this life, how superfluous our possessions are but how much each other and our relationships matter. What we neglected was our relationship to others simply because keeping up with others was difficult with our noses to the grindstone and our thought processes taken up by survival. Even now we no longer go out to dinner or have drinks with friends very often, mostly because we developed the habit of cooking our own food since it was far cheaper to do so. We didn’t have (and still don’t) the money to spend out on the town with friends, so we avoided going out instead of trying to explain our lack of money.  I regret that I didn’t keep my friends closer while we were so afraid. I miss them. These years have been a lonely time, but hardship brought my husband and me closer to each other. When you may lose everything but each other, that relationship becomes paramount. I hope my friends understand.

When I was thinking of how I would write this post to explain what this time in our lives was like, I realized I couldn’t. No one who hasn’t weathered that kind of storm can possibly know how it felt, and I really hope others don’t find out. What I could do, however, is share a song with you, one I first learned about through my brother. It is a song called “Gratitude” that speaks of learning to be grateful even in the midst of hardship. Quite a while ago he told me about the Christian artist, Nichole Nordeman who wrote this song. She is a wonderful songwriter, and this song comes from her album Woven and Spun. I have always loved the tune and the words, but not until my family went through The Great Recession, did I understand the words’ deeper meaning.

My hubby and I are not out of the woods yet, but we see a glimmer of light in the distance. It is now time to take a deep breath and give thanks for all we have, all God has given us, and reconnect with our friends. It has taken us nearly eight years to climb out of the hole we found ourselves in, but I think our luck is changing. “We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream in abundance or in need,” and I’m so very grateful.

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No Complaints

This year for Lent I decided to challenge myself in a new way. Rather than giving up sweets, which I usually fail at miserably, I decided to give up complaining. Easy, right? Until I began this challenge on Ash Wednesday, I was unaware how many little annoyances I complained about. I didn’t shout or belabor any particular subject, but I found fault with a multitude of mundane things without even realizing what I was doing.

What I found when I caught myself in the act of complaining was that complaining had become a habit. For example, I’ve moaned about our heater for years. We have geothermal heat at our house, but this winter, in particular, the heat pump has not been able to keep up with the demand. We employed a man to fix the well, but our water pressure doesn’t remain constant if the heat is on and the shower is also on. I usually rush to get ready for work, so my showers are quick during the week. Just yesterday when I was showering, the water was falling in a weak stream–my husband and I joke about our well needing some Viagra. I didn’t have time for the extra minutes I needed to rinse the soap off and started my usual harangue of the heat pump. Then I realized I what I was doing.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and said a quick prayer. When I thought about all I have in my life, I felt ashamed of wanting a shower that rinses me off in seconds. How many people would love to have a hot shower, never mind one that rinses them quickly. How many people would love  a roof over their heads, especially with the winter we’ve all endured? How many people want the security and love of a family? I’m blessed with all these and more. How could I be so thoughtless?

Rarely do I see my life with such clarity as I did in the shower mid-complaint. When I decided to give up complaining, I did it on a whim. What I’ve found, however, is that my lack of complaining has opened my eyes to the wonders of my life. And I’m grateful. I go home to a warm house and a loving husband. I have two children I’m proud of and love more than I can say. I have a difficult but rewarding job when others are struggling to feed their families. I have nothing to complain about. The necessities of my life are taken care of.

Before giving up complaining for Lent, I would have complained when it snowed yet again two days ago or that my son will return to school in a day or that Bruce will be gone for the rest of the week, but I am choosing to see the what I have instead of what I lack. Travis has been home for nearly a week, Bruce will be home Friday night to take me to the airport before I leave to see family in Georgia I haven’t seen in a long time, and the snow that fell two days ago has already melted.

Although Spring officially arrived in Wisconsin today, we won’t feel the warm breezes or see the earth come alive for a while yet. The blanket of snow still remains but is melting each day. Dreaming of the flowers, green grass, birdsong, and blue skies that will follow makes me smile. Spring and the Lenten season is a renewal not only of the earth but also of the spirit, just what I’ve been contemplating lately. I am trying to change the habit of complaining into a habit of gratitude, each day a new beginning and a fresh perspective on the wonder of living. I have no complaints.

Sure Cure for a Shopping Hangover

I have a shopping hangover, and I’m not proud of it. Black Friday and Cyber Monday caused it, making me feel like I had to be part of the rush to get the best deals. Would they be gone if I had waited? Probably, but does that really matter? What has me troubled is this hangover doesn’t affect my body so much as my spirit. Judging from the news coverage of the number of shoppers Thanksgiving weekend, I’m sure I am not the only one who felt this way. Watching the Black Friday coverage on the news was enough to make me sick to my stomach. Has the Christmas season really become this commercialized today?  I know there has always been a focus on the commercial aspects of gift buying, and I realize with the economy still in the tank, retailers wanted and needed to have a great kickoff to the holidays. I understand that, but what has shopping at all hours, and for hours, done to the average person’s psyche? Does anyone else feel used up and repulsed by the buying frenzy?

Something strange but wonderful has happened to me in the past few months. I’ve become accustomed to a slower pace of life and to NOT shopping. Since my husband just landed a new job, I was looking forward to being able to spend a little bit of money this year for presents, but I wasn’t anticipating the all out assault on the senses retailers have unleashed on the public. What I also didn’t expect was how easy it is to get caught up in thinking I need what they are hawking, especially when the deal only lasts for two hours at the crack of dawn. So I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself. I did some soul searching and realized I don’t need all these items I thought I wanted. Because, when you get down to it, they are just things. Will those “things” actually improve my life or will having one more thing actually complicate my life?

When we didn’t have any money a couple of months ago, I missed being able to go to the stores to buy what I needed. Now that I can buy what I need, I realize just how little I actually want. This past weekend I realized just how caught up I was in the deals which seemed too good to pass up at first glance. That first seductive glance is the problem for us as consumers, but the point of the constant bombardment by advertisers. They appeal to our hunter gatherer instincts of fear of scarcity. We don’t want to be without, so they keep tempting us over and over with each commercial and with each email alert, upping the ante each time. As a result, we don’t often take the time to determine whether what we are seeing is what we need or simply what we want, an impulse we might regret later on.

At the end of the day on Cyber Monday, I felt exhausted. I had been trying to find exactly what my family had asked for and also find an item or two for myself since the sales were so good. (I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit that last part.) When I went to bed that night, I realized I had wasted most of a day I will never get back doing nothing more than plotting how to spend money! I had little to show for the amount of time I spent looking and comparing. In fact, I’m not even finished with my shopping. What I have started to do today is delete most of the emails I receive from retailers, and I’m throwing out many of the catalogues I love looking at because they satisfy the urge to shop without my having to spend any money. I’m removing temptation.

Something else I am doing is supporting Small Business Saturday. This past Saturday I shopped at two retailers here in my town, and you know what? I enjoyed myself. Not only did I find some great deals, but I also renewed ties with people in my community, both merchants and patrons of the stores I went to. Those small businesses are trying to make a living without spending millions on advertising. What they do instead is to spend time…on their customers. They take the time to talk to you and understand what you are looking for, and if they don’t have it, they will suggest something equally wonderful or will try to find it for you, even if it isn’t in their stores! I went home satisfied and pleased with my purchases and knew I had made connections with the people I encountered.

Despite seeing and hearing commercials for Christmas shopping for weeks now, I know the Christmas season doesn’t last long. In fact, I can’t believe it is almost December first already. The season’s parties kick off in a week at my friend Barb’s annual cookie exchange. I have several other parties to attend, but I intend to continue my slower pace of life, to savor the moments of the season, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.

For me, the moments I treasure focus on the true meaning of Christmas, not the commercialization of the holiday. The season truly begins this weekend at my church for the first Sunday in Advent. On that day we will begin a ritual shared by millions of Christians for hundreds of years, the ritual of preparing ourselves and waiting for the Son of God to be born. Every Sunday until Christmas each part of the story of Christ’s birth, each hymn, each prayer will impart anticipation rather than anxiety, peace rather than impatience. Each service will fill me up with the love of God and leave me content.

We are in control of what we allow the Christmas season to be about. This year especially I am aware that I can wait for some of the things I thought I wanted. I will instead prepare my heart for the season. I am choosing how to spend my days this holiday savoring the moments and counting my blessings, reflecting with gratitude on what I already have not what I might acquire. I hope you’ll take time to slow down and spend your time at a pace that brings you peace with friends and family who love you. In this season of Advent, I hope you ponder what Christmas is all about, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.