It’s a Catastrophe

I’m still shocked at how much simple habits of gratitude are turning my life upside down.  Before taking on the Happy LIFE, I don’t think I was particularly aware, extravert that I am, of my internal dialog.  I sure didn’t notice how negative – and how completely automatic – it can be.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if self-consciousness were the same thing as self-awareness?  If it were, I believe I might be sufficiently enlightened to ascend bodily into eternity.  As it is, I’m just embarrassed a lot.

Speaking of embarrassment, there’s the matter of self-disclosure, otherwise known as throwing your own self under the bus.  So, speaking to you from the underbelly of a Greyhound, I’m disclosing that I just caught myself in an amazingly negative thought process.  I was speaking with the customer service department of the Reader’s Digest, to which my mother has a lifetime subscription.  I called at a time of day that I assumed, right off the bat, would have a negative outcome.  I was so sure that that I would not be able to speak with a real human that I was shocked spitless when a pleasant-sounding young woman named Courtney answered the phone on the third ring.

Then, she asked me for my account number.

“Oh, great, I got someone on the phone but now it’s going to fall apart,” I automatically and immediately told myself despite the pleasant surprise of a live person that I’d experienced just seconds before.

“I don’t have the number,” I told Courtney, “because my mom hasn’t been getting the magazine at her new place and I don’t have any old issues on hand at my place.”

“No problem,” said Courtney. “What’s her name?”

No problem?  Well, this response certainly didn’t fit my negative expectations.  I told Courtney Mama’s name and she looked it up.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t find that name.”

A little spark of fear had flashed earlier and was going off again.  Courtney, still trying to be helpful, says, “What other name could it be under?”

“None, really,” I said, and I was thinking to myself, Mama subscribed to that magazine when she went to work at seventeen and I know she received it under her married name my whole life, in excess of fifty years.  It was starting to seem really weird at that point.  I felt a little gust of worry, fanning another little spark of fear catch the tinder of doubt and begin to burn.  What if Mama’s been targeted for some sort of identity theft?  What if her accounts have been changed to some other address?

Suffice it to say that, in the end, it wasn’t a problem with her account.  And, please allow me to reiterate that, prior to the Happy LIFE, I truly don’t think I would have been aware of all the dire things I was speculating about what could have gone wrong just because my mother wasn’t receiving a magazine.  I suppose I could choose to be comforted by the fact this negative thought process is so common it has a name.  I was “catastrophizing.”  I was stringing together every worst-case scenario I could think of and, because I’m somewhat creative, I could think of a lot of catastrophes that an AWOL magazine could portend.

I’m grateful that I revisited my catastrophizing in writing, too, because it took me along another path where much sweeter thoughts have occurred to me.  I’ve thought about how the Reader’s Digest has followed Mama and, in a way, served as a chronicle of her admirable passage through the world, from dirt farm to comfortable retirement.  It has also served as the source of her (and my own) vocabulary; it has helped shape her worldview; it has served as an object lesson and example of a world where we pay increasingly more for goods and services that offer increasingly less value, where almost everything in our lives is “commoditized” and we can’t be sure what to believe and who’s selling what.

I know that a some intellectual or “now a go go” contemporary types find magazines like Reader’s Digest to be laughable artifacts of a time that was naïve at best and socially repressive at worst.  Still, for me, it will always serve as a symbol of a generation that considered the greater good, who thought of others before themselves, and knew what it meant to sacrifice and delay gratification for future rewards.  I appreciate that, these days, we have a more acceptable outlook on many things that would have been taboo in the Reader’s Digest of my mother’s heyday and my own childhood.  I want to believe that it – and other chronicles of my mother’s generation – will always carry their spirit and provide a voice of reason and decency in a word that increasingly lacks both.

Acceptance

I believe that I’ve mourned the loss of our first (and last) grandchild, who did not survive past the first half of his life, on the way to his birth.  I was only able to meet the idea of him before he was gone and still, he changed my life.  Through him, I became aware of – and have opened up to – this phase of my life as the third (and last) chapter.  It’s been difficult – though it’s been made more bearable by having to accept the loss of my own ability to have children back in those days.  Blessedly, that loss came after receiving the gift of my first (and last) child.  I still find occasion to cry over the loss of our grandchild but I feel as though I have managed to grieve his passing, not as a glancing blow of loss but as a lingering gift of spirit.

What I have only recently begun to understand is that I have also been grieving another loss, the loss of the possibility of grandchildren.  Awareness of that loss came as a second wave, keenly felt when hearing about new arrivals in friends’ and family’s lives.  That stab of self-centered grief was tinged with a little longing and, no matter how quickly it might have passed, the longing was always there.  And, I suppose, there will always be reminders of it, slipping in unexpectedly with a surprising stab of lingering loss.

Recently, though, I’ve been making gratitude something of a habit and things have begun to change.  I find myself experiencing the babies and children I encounter with the most surprising mix of feelings, whether I know them and their families or not.  I’m discovering as I write this that tears still find their way to my eyes when I think of kids in the world and the hope and dreams they represent.  What I’m especially surprised to feel is deep gratitude to all the children we’ve seen out and about who’ve waved and smiled back, and to all the parents who’ve stopped to chat.  I’m even grateful  to our little dog because she loves children and children love her; she is a kid magnet.

The highlight of my holiday weekend was having three children literally squeal with delight at seeing our dog and, because they had great parents, approach her excitedly but with appropriate care and respect for her space.  It was a clear display what happens when children experience loving and effective parenting.  It was a snapshot of kids whose parents were showing them exactly the kind of gentle – but definite – attention the children were giving our little dog.  And, in that moment, I was struck by a sense of acceptance, though still inescapably tinged with sadness.  None of the children I ever encounter will be my own grandchild but, in some unfathomable way – through gratitude – they are all are.