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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

A HOLIDAY LETTER: A Guest Post by Sarah Couch

My friend Janet shared with me her daughter Sarah's holiday letter to the people she loves. I was deeply touched by it, because it so beautifully and truthfully embraces the hard and the tender, the warmth and the cold in our lives. It reminds me of the central importance of hospitality. I'm grateful to Sarah for her willingness to share this letter with you. The only thing I changed was to remove her daughter's name.




Dear People I Love,
I saw my nephew today. I drove down to meet him near where the bus from the homeless shelter drops him off. I couldn't find him at the meeting spot so called. He reminded me he can't stand in front of buildings, even if he is waiting to meet his aunt, because they will say he is loitering or they will call the police because they are uncomfortable with how his delusions express themselves through his body and words. He stood, instead, in the gutter, and waited for my minivan to turn the corner and legitimize his right to take up space in our community. 
It is harsh, right?  Why would I start my holiday letter like that?  Should I not be telling stories more joy filled and hopeful?  Shouldn't my words be full of all the good things from the year, like the puppy we adopted from the pound in February, and the new chickens whose feathers shine silver when the rays of the sun hit them at the right angle, and the growth and changes in my business?  Shouldn't I tell you about my daughter and how she has lost all her front teeth and has a toothless grin that lights up a room, or about the way her body fills with pride when she reads all the words in a book, or about her brilliance and her understanding of numbers and how she counts by 1s and 10s and 20s? 
And maybe it is age, or maybe it is experience, or maybe it's just real. All of it. I can't pretend that driving down the street and seeing the impact of poverty and drug use doesn't impact me. I can't deny that watching people wake up on street corners, and listening to people tell stories of hopelessness and overdose and suicide and terror doesn't create some heaviness in my breathing, a weight on my heart. I can't ignore that wars, and hate, and injustice and inhumanity fly around in ways that strike me at my core and make me afraid. Concurrently, I can't pretend I am not inspired by the ways bulbs break through the soil to welcome spring, or the way water sounds as it trickles through a creek and down a rock in the mountains. I can't ignore how people stop to create moments of connection, or how people offer themselves up to support a cause, or how neighbors can surround each other to create an oasis of lights to buffer the early darkness of winter. I can't deny the way the cold morning air hits my lungs with piercing clarity reminding me I am alive. I am alive. And with my history of depression and feelings of hopelessness and desire to sometimes not be alive, I say again, I am alive. And I'm here for all of this.

So I hope this letter finds you alive. And I hope this holiday season is full of amazing moments of joy and light in the darkness and families and friends and good food and sleeping in and funny movies and delicious treats and long hours spent in nature. And I hope, also, there are moments where you feel the empty grief of your loved one who is no longer here, and the sweet sadness of watching the children in your life grow up and grow into their own true selves, and that you feel longing and fear and maybe a little bit of terror, so you can fully embrace the closeness and hope and moments of safety and calm. I hope all of this for you. And I am so very grateful you are part of our life.





Sarah owns her business, which provides social work services to children in the Albuquerque Public Schools.

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Winter Solstice Sunrise, Chaco Canyon, A. Redsand

A few years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I heard a Diné man say that he was bewildered by the fact that in America we devote a single day to Thanksgiving. He said, "In our tradition, every day is a day for giving thanks." In 12-Step programs people who are feeling depressed about getting clean and sober are often advised to make a list of things they are grateful for. It's called having an "attitude of gratitude," and people are reminded that it is hard to be depressed while you're being grateful.
Around the time I heard that Diné man speaking in a radio interview, I started a daily practice posting three things that I was grateful for on Facebook (I was still on FB then). I hoped that it might catch on and go viral. I thought if it did, it could help to change the world. I do believe that if millions of us are being grateful and sharing our gratitude with others, the world will be transformed. It is not only difficult to be depressed when you're being grateful; it is also difficult to be mean or angry or violent. Think how the world would change, if gratitude helped to keep us from harming ourselves and others.
Many years ago, I read the story of an adopted child who had been severely abused and neglected. He had been left for days in a cellar with only bread and water to eat and drink. Rats were his only companions. Despite the loving care he received in his adoptive family, he remained understandably angry. He was mean to other children. The rest of the time he withdrew from everyone around him. His new mother gave him a calendar and asked him to write in each square one thing he was thankful for. For weeks he wrote nothing. Then one day, he wrote, "Teacher let me." His mother asked what that meant, and he said his teacher had let him pass out the milk in class. His recognition of that one positive event became a turning point for him. It wasn't that nothing positive had happened before, but on that day, he recognized it and was thankful. He began filling each date with something he appreciated, and his relationships with others began to change.
Practicing an attitude of gratitude and going one step further by sharing my gratitude with others had the effect of making me more aware throughout each day of the large and small things I was grateful for. Most of the time I found it was the simple things that I could otherwise easily have taken for granted—warm showers, a delicious breakfast, my truck that worked as soon as I turned the key, a beautiful sunrise, colors, laughter, naps, and rain. Other times it was something I might not be happy about at first—like several hours of insomnia. But I realized I could be honestly thankful for that because, in my tossing and turning, I got an important idea for the book I was writing at the time.
There were times, of course, when I didn't (and still don't) feel grateful for anything, but my a commitment to naming things I was grateful for pushed me to think of things I could be grateful for. In 12-Step programs, this is called "acting as if." Acting as if I am thankful, even when I don't feel thankful, can actually change how I'm feeling. At these times I often think of some of life's most basic gifts—that I'm alive, that my family is safe, that I have a house to live in.

When I was doing those daily posts, one of my friends told me that she'd been inspired by them. She said she'd seen a centipede on the porch, and she hates centipedes. "Then I thought of your posts," she said. "I realized that I can be thankful because centipedes eat insects, and also because this one was outdoors, not in the house." Some people did start practicing gratitude posting. Other friends, even ones I didn't know except online, were reading my posts, and might comment out of the blue, "I love these posts." I thought, "Oh good. I was privileged to give someone joy today, and they even told me about it."
An attitude of gratitude is a powerful agent for change. Sharing what I am grateful for can remind others of what they have to be thankful for—sometimes in a day or a week filled with problems. Mostly, being grateful changes me and how I look at life, even more than it changes others.
The fourteenth century German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." He and the Diné man who said, "Every day is a day for giving thanks," were onto something big.
This post appeared in the Gallup Independent a few years ago and has been updated in the hope that all of us in this season will be reminded that an attitude of gratitude is a powerful change agent every day, year-round.

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