How to Give Thanks

Have you ever looked in the window of a shop at a fantastic outfit on a mannequin and thought, I wish I had that? Or at a child playing in the park and thought, I wish I was that free? I recently spent Thanksgiving in New Mexico with the family of some close friends and thought, I wish my family was like that.

Don’t get me wrong, the family I visited are far from perfect. They have their dramas and their infighting, they have strong personalities and deep resentments and all the other wonderful things that make a family tick. The family belongs to two sisters who I met when we all live in New York. There were four of us girls playing out our own dynamic HBO special, until the sisters moved; one a few states away and the other across the Atlantic, but we’ve maintained a close friendship. Since they were already travelling to spend the holiday with their family the idea was that we would all be together in one place, which is hard when we live in three separate ones.

I should say that I know this family well, between weddings and family get-togethers I have met them all, and even visited the family home back in February, so this was nothing new. I brought my fiancé with me, it was his first time meeting most of them, and the remaining girl of our friendship foursome was coming as well, so it’s not like we were gatecrashing an intimate family affair. We were more than welcome, I wasn’t worried about that. I wasn’t worried about what food we would bring, I wasn’t worried about what I would wear, because I’ve been holding on to those cowboy boots for just this kind of adventure, in fact my only concern was how everyone would get along. Strong personalities, as I said before.

But my fears proved unfounded as soon as we stepped in the door and were greeted with snacks upon snacks, mountains of beer and hugs all around. It was the kind of low key madness you see in hallmark movies about the holidays, warmth and good cheer and easy conversation. We were put straight to work, and it felt good. We were included, we were necessary. The meal itself was delicious, and afterwards when everyone was a little drunk and very full, a cavalcade of fake mustaches appeared out of a bag and were slapped on lips. We laughed ’til our tummies hurt, taking pictures and coming up with names for these new mustachioed versions of ourselves. At least that’s the scene that played out in my mind.

In reality, I’m sure there were some among the friends and family who were at times bored or felt left out. There were probably bruised egos and annoyances happening all around, but I was so thirsty to feel a part of something those subtle pings went unnoticed by me. I was too busy thinking, if only my family could be like this. If only my family was as welcoming, as kind, as warm. After dinner, we got back to the Airbnb, fiancé, friend and I, and settled into a bittersweet dissection of all the funny things that had happened over the course of the day, and all the ways in which we had each been reminded of what we didn’t have in our families of origin. We lamented that this magical Thanksgiving experience never would have happened in any of our own families. They were too small, or too cold, or too difficult.

It wasn’t very thankful, nor was it entirely true. My mother might not be the kind of person who can remember the names of my friends, but she still puts on the Christmas dinner, Easter, birthdays, you name it. We can’t seem to get through a family event without someone getting upset over a real or imagined slight, but we usually come together at one point or another during the evening. And everyone is still speaking to each other, for now at least.

When it was late, just the three of us, my fiancé, my friend and I, and we had finished picking apart the ways in which our own families felt lacking at times, we pulled ourselves together and thought of things we actually were thankful for. Each other, the beautiful landscape all around us, the fact that we were on holidays and didn’t have to do much of the washing up! We each listed things that felt pretty great about our lives, and even went so far as to think about the positives of each of our families, they ways in which they support us, love us, and ultimately just want us to be happy.

It’s easy at these once a year gatherings that are so heavy with emotion and intent to feel like you’re on the outside, looking in. Wanting what you see on the TV or in the shop window. Nothing is as shiny from the inside as it is from the out, and that same family that felt so warm and fuzzy got into a big multi-way argument a few days later. Drama always ensues. It’s so tempting to compare ourselves to other people, and I at least usually do it looking up at those who I feel like have so much more, rather than those who have less. I think it can be helpful to remember how lucky I am to have a family at all, to be safe and have a roof over my head and food in my fridge. But I’m not just lucky by comparison, I am objectively lucky to have love in my life from my family of origin and the one I’ve built for myself. I have so much to be thankful for, and it doesn’t always look like what you see on the TV, but it’s good.

It’s easy to get seduced by the fantastical ways of thinking if only. If only my life looked like that, if only I belonged to a different set of circumstances. But to be truly thankful is to take an honest look at your life, because it’s the only one you have. And when I did, I found that there was so much more to be thankful for than I could even name. Nothing can make you feel so full as thankfulness, although I’m willing to accept the challenge next year when turkey day rolls around and the voice in my head tells me there’s no way I could eat another slice of pie.