Columns | First Person

At Thanksgiving time, an exercise in mindfulness

Cindy Sher
Cindy Sher

CHICAGO (JTA) — Last year, for a month before Thanksgiving I jotted down one thing for which I was grateful every night before I went to bed.

Here are some of the 30 blessings I recorded:

• A warm bed.
• Airplanes that fly me to visit my family for Thanksgiving.
• A baby bundled in a puffy coat and a hat with teddy bear ears, toddling down the street with his parents.
• Employing my three little nephews as sous chefs/marshmallow tasters as we made sweet potato casserole together on Thanksgiving.
• An old couple holding hands.
• Refuge from a snowstorm.
• A cheap dinner out with even cheaper wine shared with priceless friends.
• Cyndi Lauper (after I went to her concert).
• Shabbat.

And the list went on. I loved the exercise, helping me to be mindful every day that month — and beyond — for how much I am grateful for. Even on the hard days, and even amid a backdrop of a lot of pain in the world, remembering our blessings makes us appreciate the beauty, wonder and magic of life.

It’s funny, but I didn’t record any big, expensive stuff on the list. In fact, very few of the items cost even a penny. It’s so often the small, fleeting moments that are the biggest and most beautiful, and the ones that stay with us.

Gratitude lies at the heart of who we are as Jews. We’re supposed to express thanks to God for waking up every day, for the souls we embody, for the bread we eat, for the wine we drink, for the illness or danger we survive — and for so much more.

Just as gratitude lies at the heart of who we are as Jews, mindfulness lies at the heart of gratitude. The great Jewish sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about mindfulness in this famous quote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” he said. “Get up every morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Over the High Holidays, I read a slim and poignant book that matched my reflective Jewish head-space of the season. In “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” Rabbi Steven Leder writes about appreciating all that’s extraordinary in our ordinary lives through a Jewish lens. As we get older, Leder said, we lose our sense of awe and wonder.

“When we look back at the calendar of our lives how many pages are worth saving?” Leder writes. “We schedule our business appointments — mastering the lessons of time management and efficiency. But do we really manage our time well? Have we celebrated with our children? Have we visited our aging parents and grandparents or made that phone call to the friend whose loved one is sick? Have we hugged each other enough? Do our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our partners in love and life, know what they mean to us?”

Leder references a Hasidic story in which a rebbe asks his followers where God exists. “Everywhere,” his disciples respond. “No,” the rabbi replies. “God exists only where we let God in.”

In the broader culture, various forms of meditation are hotter than ever, where we let go of our day-to-day stresses and noise, at least for a moment, and be more mindful and intentional in our lives.

In my favorite movie last year, a British love story called “About Time,” the protagonist possesses the power of time travel and is able to relive the same moment more than once. By the end of the film, he realizes that it’s better not to relive moments but to appreciate every moment the first time around.

Soon, we’ll all sit down for Thanksgiving once again, a national holiday that seems like an extension of the High Holidays because it focuses on themes of gratitude so prominent in Jewish values. Let’s all give thanks for the moments — the extraordinary and the ordinary — because we’ll only live them once.

(Cindy Sher is executive editor of the Chicago’s JUF News, where this piece originally appeared.)