trains on Thanksgiving

Very early tomorrow morning, my fiance is arriving in Pittsburgh on a train to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I am already here at my parents’ house, benefiting from a work schedule that I admit is almost embarrassingly privileged (I get the whole week off) and the fact that I finished up last week at a conference in Baltimore, about 3.5 hours from my parents. Jordan, who had to work this week like a normal person, is taking an overnight train and then hitching a ride back to the Midwest with me on Friday.

Although it means waking up at an ungodly hour, I am excited to see Jordan at the station. (I’m thinking about making a little sign with his name on it.) There seems to be something inherently romantic, or at least heartwarming, about meeting loved ones at transportation hubs on holidays–just watch the end of Love Actually. Bonus points if it’s in a train station, which is inherently more romantic than an airport–just watch the middle of White Christmas. But my mom and I both went to a different movie reference today: We imagined being late to the station tomorrow morning (a distinct possibility; let’s be honest) and finding Jordan sitting forlornly on a bench with his mittens on and all his worldly possessions (or, you know, his overnight bag) sitting next to him, like Del Griffith at the end of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a movie that is actually about Thanksgiving and that I have written about twice over the past year. (This post is about the movie’s theme of “radical hospitality,” as I put it; this one consists mainly of an embarrassing story about something dumb I did, but it does reference the film several times and is also of historical interest since I wrote it shortly after meeting Jordan).

I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here: There’s something special about picking a beloved face out of a crowd. There is something special, too, about the look on the face of the person you have come to pick up. I know from my own experience that even if, unlike Del Griffith, you know someone is coming for you, there’s still a moment of relief: “Oh, they didn’t forget me.”

Keep those feelings in your heart as you celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Don’t take for granted the beloved faces around you. And don’t forget about the people who feel like they have been forgotten. Fred Rogers used to remind us to look for the child in each person we speak with. I would add: Look for the child who is afraid of not getting picked up after school. I think there’s a little bit of that child in all of us still.

planes, trains, and radical hospitality

This past weekend, my family watched the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) like we do every Thanksgiving. This movie works so well because the two main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, subvert stereotypes that are often present in run-of-the-mill comedies. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is a twist on the workaholic dad character so common in 1980s and 90s family comedies. Unlike most of those characters, Neal desperately wants to get home to his family, but can’t because of a relentless series of logistical mishaps. He also embodies the tightly-wound neurotic character type, but whereas that type often appears as an antagonist or as merely the butt of unkind humor, Neal, as the point of view character of the film, is utterly sympathetic. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, (SPOILER ALERT–but seriously, you’ve had 31 years to see this movie) is a homeless widower, a character who might be a tiresomely pathetic victim in a lesser movie, but he’s also that annoying guy who sits next to you on an airplane and talks your ear off. But as we, through Neal, get to know Del, we are led into sympathy with him as well, and we come to understand that he talks because he’s lonely. He is vulnerable not only because he is a homeless widower but also because he is a traveling salesman–someone who, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, survives by the good will of others–but he is also incredibly savvy and resilient.

I realized this year, more than ever before, how much I relate to Neal Page, especially in his very physical and verbal displays of frustration. I really see myself in the scene where he throws an almost acrobatic tantrum–and literally throws his car rental agreement–in the remote parking lot where he gets stranded after he gets dropped off at the alleged parking space of a rental car that doesn’t exist. Co-workers probably think Neal is a calm, mild-mannered guy, but he has high standards for himself, other people, and the universe at large, and when those standards aren’t met, he doesn’t know what to do. So he explodes, and sometimes he hurts people. I can relate, so very much. (I gave a major character in the zombie apocalypse story I just finished writing, Adrian Fallon, this same flaw. I also realized after watching the movie on Friday how much the road trip elements of my story had been influenced by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.)

I think nearly everyone can relate to Neal–who, again, is the character through whom we experience the story–in one respect. The whole way through the film, we’ve been imagining, along with Neal, these idyllic scenes of what his family must be doing at home. Through him, we’ve experienced the gradual stripping away of comforts he has always taken for granted–money, transportation, warmth, privacy, security. (These are things, by the way, that Del, a perpetual traveler, cannot take for granted. I think the heavy trunk he carries around represents the burden of the constant stress of the road.) By the end, we, along with Neal, want nothing more than to go home, take a shower, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and go to bed. Yet (spoiler again) Neal makes the radical decision to turn around and invite Del to share Thanksgiving, one of the most intimate holidays, with his family. There’s a lot of talk today in the blogosphere, the publishing industry, churches, etc. about “radical hospitality.” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shows us, profoundly, that tired, frustrated, flawed people are the ones who can best show such hospitality.

 

 

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

the thankfulness book

This is the next in my series of posts on crafting a rule of life.  Those of you who have been following this series will be interested (and maybe a little sad) to know that I am probably going to wrap it up after next week’s post.  However, I’ll continue to add to my rule of life and will probably blog about it from time to time in the future.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, meditating on my struggle with anger and how, with God’s help, I can implement practices into my life that will help me to become less angry and more gentle.  One of the action steps that came from that session was to begin writing daily in the thankfulness journal that I started last summer during a Bible study on Ann Vosskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a book I heartily recommend.  Like thousands of other Christian women who have read the book, I chose a beautiful journal (mine is a handcrafted one from Nepal, with a colorful woven cover and soft, fibrous pages) and started making a list of things I’m thankful for, with the eventual goal of reaching one thousand.  Like thousands of other Christian women, I faithfully wrote 2-3 items daily for a few weeks and then petered out, starting and stopping again sporadically throughout the year whenever I happened to notice the journal under a pile of other books.

As I mentioned in my solitude post, the authors of Taking Your Soul to Work connect anger (the sin) and gentleness (the fruit of the spirit) with surrendered contentment (the outcome).  After I recognized this unexpected connection, I decided that picking my thankfulness journal back up and making it a habit this time could be an effective strategy for becoming more content with the gifts I have and thereby feeling less compelled toward anger about what I don’t have and/or can’t control.  Too, writing about those seemingly out-of-nowhere gifts that come to me more often than I usually notice (e.g., a good conversation with a friend whom I “happened” to walk by when leaving a blood drive early after an unsuccessful attempt to donate) may help me see how good it is that I’m not in control of every minute of my day.

Keeping a thankfulness list isn’t just for angry people, or for women, or for people who have been inspired by Ann Vosskamp.  It’s for anyone who wants to rewire their brain circuitry to look for good things.  (There’s real science that says you can actually do this; maybe I’ll write a post about it sometime.)  And it only takes a minute or less to jot down a few items every day.  This practice can also be done with other people.  My family has a now-threadbare journal that we’ve pulled out every Thanksgiving since 1991 to record what we’ve been most thankful for during the previous year.  Reading our entries aloud together has led to much laughter, many happy tears, and deep fellowship with each other and with God.

If you think it sounds cheesy, have you actually tried it?  It won’t change you into a different person overnight, but it will gradually train your brain–and your heart, and all the rest of you–to see gifts where you didn’t before.

If you have experience with keeping a thankfulness list, or if you have ideas about how you might incorporate this simple discipline into your life, let me know in the comments!

Tea lovers, raise your cups.

I got a red Hamilton Beach slow cooker, courtesy of my parents, at Walmart on Thanksgiving night (what crowd-phobic Tess Stockslager–I mean, Penelope Clearwater–was doing at Walmart on that night of all nights is another story for another time), but I had not used it until this past Saturday. Since then, I’ve used it three times with great success.  One of those successes was a chai tea much more flavorful than that weak stuff you get in coffee shops (there’s a reason they’re not called tea shops).  I got the recipe from a cookbook simply titled Crock-Pot: The Original Slow-Cooker–Recipe Collection (2008), but I made a few adjustments.  For example, I couldn’t find whole cardamom seeds at the grocery store, so I used a teaspoon of the ground stuff (thanks, Charity).  The other adjustments were similar.  To enhance flavor, I used as many different varieties of tea as I could: Earl Grey, Lady Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Yorkshire Gold (thanks, Allison), and a tea that was already flavored as vanilla chai.

Chai Tea

2 quarts (8 cups) water

5 cinnamon sticks

8 bags black tea

8 slices fresh ginger

3/4 cup sugar

16 whole cloves

16 whole cardamom seeds, pods removed (optional)

1 cup milk

1. Combine water, tea bags, sugar, cloves, cardamom, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and ginger in 4 1/2-quart slow cooker.  Cover; cook on HIGH 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

2. Strain mixture; discard solids.  (At this point, tea may be covered and refrigerated up to 3 days.)

3. Stir in milk just before serving.  Serve warm or chilled.