November 24, 2023 Paige Nolan

And so it begins – the season of thankfulness. We can easily forget to count our blessings throughout the year – on any given busy Tuesday, we can fall asleep watching a show and the moon rises without our even naming the good that has been bestowed upon us throughout the day. At the end of the year, with the holidays approaching, we have the collective invitation to linger in our wellbeing, to notice the miracles, to appreciate the big and small wins on the Tuesdays and the Wednesdays, knowing that all of the days of this year are now numbered – all of the days of our life are, actually, numbered…and we just went through another year of it, remembering to be grateful on some (if we’re diligent, maybe even most) of the days.

I love this time of year for the recalibration it offers – if you are lined up with anything other than gratitude, you’re off. And you know it. November slips in with a soft but clear message – and if you can’t hear it, you can certainly sense it:

Life is a feast, take your seat at the table.
It’s time for us to be nourished by the blessing of it all.

I’ve only recently embraced the regular use of this word “blessing” in my vocabulary. Historically, in my mind, blessing has had a religious connotation. I’ve most often defined a blessing as God’s favor or a prayer we say before a meal – to thank God for the food. So in this way, I’ve placed the word blessing in this category of Ideas Associated with God, which are tied to the religious underpinnings of my worldview. That works, it’s got a place. But lately, as I get more and more curious about faith and love and hope – and living with less fear – I’ve wanted to set the word blessing free. It should be able to move spaciously through my thinking, not solely linked to God or religion. Years ago, I had to do the same thing with the word “God” – I set it free by claiming and naming the only definition of God that has always and ever made complete sense to me, as juvenile as it is: God is love.  Once I did that, any conflict I had with “God” (capital ‘G’ or lowercase ‘g’) and/or religion vs. spirituality evaporated. Sometimes we need to just expand the definition of the words that we use, so we can put them to use for peace in our lives.

If God is love, blessings are mercy.

Blessings are everywhere, just like love. They are beyond any category. They animate our life with spirit – and spirit is the essence of our aliveness.

Being a human is really hard. Living on this planet is intense. I don’t have any memory of living anywhere else, but I have to believe, in all of the universe, of all that is possible: this is one of the more difficult places to be born. With all of our rushing and scrolling and texting and stressing and proving our worth and filtering our faces and worrying about what shoes to wear and if our child will make the travel team or have decent social skills or get into a top tier college (or any college at all) or if we even have the courage to look in the mirror and say aloud: you can control absolutely nothing outside of your own response to any experience, not even how your spouse loads the dishwasher. We need a reprieve.

We need a place to believe in the best of us. We need a place to trust the tension of everyday life is not even real. Holy shit – call it – we are in this gripping, strained battle for power, holding our breath, “Mercy!”  Let it go, remember that love is the only source that sustains you over time and blessings empower you with the truth of this place.

You don’t have to look very far to find them. Our blessings come in many forms, some more obvious than others. Of course, we count our children and partners and pets and homes – we wouldn’t skip over our friends and even when family is tricky, we know it’s a beautiful relief to belong to a shared history. We get the blessing of great weather and convenient parking spaces. We are blessed with the surprise of unexpected money or flowers from a neighbor or an empty middle seat on a long airplane flight. We are even blessed with miraculous encounters with strangers.

In fact, it is these unexpected interactions with people that have brought me abruptly into alignment with love in a way that loving my family day in and day out can’t do. It’s the flight attendant who comforted me with a hug mid-flight when I was overwhelmed with my toddlers, the young couple in the grocery store who helped me scan the end cap display for special tortillas because I couldn’t find the item through an angry impatience (rather than supportive interest) that I had for Boyd’s stint as a vegan – it's the laughter the three of us shared about marriage when I chucked the tortillas into my cart next the regular-easy-to-find-ones with all the crap in it that I prefer. It’s the woman at the park, last week, who smiled knowingly at me as I stopped to observe her dog stalk a squirrel in a dramatic, infinitely endearing, slower-than-slow motion approach that we both knew would be futile – but we decided to stand together in appreciation for the dog’s brilliant display of doggedness. It’s the man who helped me reverse out of an impossibly tight spot in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and then did a dance when I didn’t nick the car next to me and instead of feeling like an inadequate “female driver” – I felt like a rock star.

These moments, and countless others, remind me that ordinary open-heartedness is the ultimate mercy we offer to each other. None of these people came to my rescue in any sort of life-saving fashion. I wasn’t in dire need. In fact, the support they gave to me came by way of presence – not heroic kindness or self-sacrificing valiance – just a willingness to acknowledge and engage in our shared humanity, for even a few minutes. Maybe we save each other from the hardship of here with just this, our presence.

My memory of the man in the In-and-Out Burger a few years ago leads me to believe we do.

I took the kids to this local fast food burger chain restaurant in an effort to escape my self-loathing thoughts of what we “should” be doing during Spring Break. They were around the ages of 10 and 8 years old.  I was plagued with comparison – other families were snow skiing or sun bathing in the Caribbean. Our family was at home – Boyd and I keeping our regular work schedules, the kids sleeping late, watching too much TV. We would go to the beach for an afternoon, plant flowers by the front door, cook together, maybe have a dance party in the kitchen at some point and then it would be Monday again, vacation complete. It didn't seem very special.

But maybe the milkshakes would be.

(*here we are that year on a walk around the block)

We order and color the paper tray liners while we wait. The kids compete over who can track the maze the fastest. We laugh about something. Our number is called. I distribute the food to the kid with the corresponding order and then we laugh about the fact that I didn’t order my own French fries, as everyone knows I am going to be pilfering theirs.  The booth is small enough that Myles is halfway on my lap, I kiss his head over and over – I take sips of his vanilla milkshake, also without asking.

And then, towards the end of our meal, a man approaches our table. This man’s shoulders are hunched forward. He shuffles as he walks. There is a quiet heaviness to him. He is dressed in beige cotton pants, running shoes, a white shirt and beige jacket. He has a sweet demeanor. He is quiet- hearted before he speaks quietly.

He lifts his hand and looks me in the eyes, “I have to share something with you.”

“Please do,” I smile.

“I’ve been very sad today,” his speech is slow and intentional. I lean towards him, my chin pressed into the palm of my hand, my elbow on the table. “Today is the day my daughter died, a few years ago – she was 42 years old. She did not have children.”

His eyes are filled with tears but he doesn't look away.  “I’ve been watching you with your family,” he motions to the whole of us, looking at each child,  “…this has brightened my day.”

I can only nod. I don’t speak for fear it will disrupt what he needs to share.

“You have been a blessing to me,” he steps closer and taps the table just in front of me, “Thank you.”

I touch his arm, “I appreciate you sharing that with me,” I smile at him. He smiles quietly, nods, looks in the direction of the door and begins his shuffle step.

Blessings are everywhere. Blessings are where you are – because your presence is a blessing. I didn’t *do* anything for that man. For him to witness the humanity I share with my children was a merciful moment for him to be released (albeit briefly) from the brokenness of his heart and delivered into the power of love, which is the primary reason hope can exist in the most grim conditions. Our presence matters – our Beingness is a blessing.

The next six weeks are going to be busy – and they are going to be filled with all of the doings that create blessings in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. There is also another way to give and receive blessing – by being. Be present. Be who you are. The natural goodness inside of you is a mercy for everyone around you – strangers and loved ones alike.

I’m still learning this, but I believe it to be true – because I believe the man who talked to me that day: our Beingness is not just a gift for others – it is a blessing for each of us, to experience our presence as an expression of love. We are supposed be who we are and then we are supposed to love who we are – and then, for Love’s sake, we are supposed to share who we are.

This is the blessing of our life.
(*here we are last night in the kitchen – nothing special – i.e. all that matters)