Last Thursday morning, my mother and I headed to upstate New York for our Thanksgiving visit with her sister’s family. Van Morrison accompanied our conversations, as he so often does in my mother’s car. It is a trip we have made many times, in many different states of mind. Last year the journey was tinged with sadness as we prepared to celebrate the first Thanksgiving without my mother’s brother who had died at the end of November the year before. Other, earlier trips were filled with giddy anticipation of the annual reunion with my cousins, who I worshiped. Still others were spent brooding over my lot as the only child in a single parent home- I longed for the “normal,” boisterous family trips that I imagined my friends and cousins with siblings and married parents experienced.
As a kid, L.L. Bean magazine provided the images that populated my fantasy of an ideal Thanksgiving (and an ideal life). The candle lit dinner tables, the $89 ski sweaters, and the beautiful people all tapped into a longing for the cozy satisfaction of understanding and being pleased with my particular place in the world. The images seemed to promise abundance, warmth, security and a certain invulnerability to the sort of adolescent insecurities that plagued me. The catalogue people knew they had made it and they were all really pretty. While half my mind scoffed at the slick marketing, a little part of me was convinced that, given the right plaid shirt, the right steaming mug of tea, and the right tree to stand under, I could slip into that sweet spot inhabited by the fictional L.L. Bean family, and feel the same sort of happiness that I imagined they did.
This year (my 30th), sitting in my mother’s living room, I flipped through the pages of the Winter 2012 catalogue (the selection remarkably similar to that of years past), and admired the beautiful scenes and shiny smiles. Recently, though, the images don’t prompt the same longing that they had when I was a kid. It would be lovely to spend a weekend at one of the woodland lodges in the magazine, but I no longer lament the space between my life and that idealized world. I am grateful for it.
There are things about growing up that I really appreciate. One of them is increased experience with the small indignities and moments of loneliness that we all face and the ways that they instruct me about life. Touching loneliness and being confronted with the chipped and limited parts of myself, my family and the world around me has given me a deeper sense of grounding in reality (where gratitude and humility are both possible). Darker moments and feelings have taught me to trust that change comes in time and that grace arrives at apt moments. Unfulfilled desires have taught me to approach God with my longing. Joy allows me to glimpse God’s immense generosity and creativity.
In Doing the Truth In Love, Michael Himes distinguishes joy from happiness, saying that happiness, or contentment, is “conditioned by a thousand external circumstances,” while joy is impervious to them. Himes weaves concepts of joy and holiness together and draws on Puritan pastor, Jonathan Edwards’ definition of holiness: the “consent of being to being,” or “each particular human being saying ‘yes’ to being that particular human being” complete with limitations. Joy requires a yes.
This Thanksgiving my family shared a beautiful meal, and attractive fall colors were donned. We looked the part of a happy, hearty family. The joy that I felt over the holiday, however, came not from the parts of our gathering that fit into my Thanksgiving vision of years past. It sprung instead from between the cracks—the apology that came after harsh words were uttered; the at-first timid and then eager questions we asked about health scares and winding vocational paths; the unexpected unfolding of a conversation with my mother that I had been nervous to start; the hopeful challenge of how to best shepherd the next generation of cousins who ran, howling through the house and who overturned a glass of red wine on my aunt’s new armchair (and the earnest but unsuccessful attempts to remove the stain).
The joy I felt this holiday came from our shared efforts to navigate the quandaries and questions, both fundamental and mundane, and to walk together as best we could. I felt fresh gratitude for the evolving real life story that we share, in which dings and grace are both present. In this story, each of us strives for holiness and joy in our own way. At our best, we shine light for one other to see by and offer each other the security of love. And in this story, no fancy sets or costumes are required.