So I’ve been thinking I don’t want this blog to be too heavy, to only focus on bad stuff, since there are so many good things in this world, so many beautiful things people make and create, and even so much heartache that can be and is turned into powerful bursts of art and light and human connection every day. Then I figured a post thanksgiving thankfulness post might be in order. After all, I’ve got the time because I don’t do that Black Friday and post-turkey shopping madness.

Actually, I’m proud to say that day after Thanksgiving I looked at zero circulars, waited in zero middle-of-the-night lines, and instead slept in, got up late, then made a leisurely breakfast of eggs, cheese grits, English muffins, and New Orleans style cafe au lait. I am not much of a materialist, preferring simple functional things and not too much clutter. I also like to give and receive practical gifts that symbolize connection rather than some huge expensive wow factor thing or something that pretty much just takes up space or rarely gets used. I think this orientation against collecting stuff or spending money impulsively is a positive result of being raised away from all the commercialism and the advertising that drives it, and most of my siblings seem to feel similarly. One of my brothers, who is very artistically talented, actually did a sketch of Sisyphus pushing a boulder made of things, cars, appliances, garbage, etc. up a mountainside and I’ve gotta say I thought he got the feeling exactly right.

Growing up poor I do think it’s easy to become kind of a hoarder when you get stuff though, fearing that getting rid of anything is wasteful, but I won over that impulse by losing all my old belongings in hurricane Katrina’s floodwater, then deciding that having a nice simple well-decorated and organized home is more important than potentially being wasteful. Good things can certainly come out of dysfunctional situations, even disasters. So now I try not to collect a lot of unnecessary belongings, and if I haven’t used something in a while, I donate it or give it away.

This year for Christmas, I already have most of the material things I need, so I made a short list for my husband and in-laws (a family altogether very into Christmas celebrations, gift giving, and making Christmas lists, the last part being something I initially felt very awkward about). My list has kickboxing lessons, the one kind of expensive makeup I like, a couple books, and some new jeans on it. I’m also hoping for one of those obnoxiously pink Victoria’s Secret gift bags because there’s just something about having pretty new underclothes.

When I go present shopping for the holidays, having such a big family means I have a lot of people to get stuff for, so I try to adhere to a strict budget, have some thrift store adventures, and come up with different homemade gift ideas each year. I prefer to get my brothers gag gifts (they started it first by getting me a Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies book with a gift receipt tucked inside) and I usually get my sisters fun accessories like nail polish, earrings, and perhaps a cute wristlet or costume jewelry, dreaming that someday I will make all my sisters adorable clutch purses. I try to give each person several small things because opening the wrapping is half the fun.

One year I made everyone a crocheted hat or scarf, another year tote bags, another year travel pillows, and this year I am doing crocheted scrubbies on bars of soap, and small heating pads made of towels and essential-oil scented rice. Yeah, these may be Grandma-type gifts but whatever, I didn’t get taught all these classically trained housewife skills of cooking, sewing, thrift living, and craft stuff just to let them all gather dust and amount to nothing!

My immediate family never celebrated any holiday besides Thanksgiving growing up, claiming they all were just pagan events with Christian themes slapped on top of them (yeah, the logic makes no sense to me either, considering holidays are at their core actually about quality time together, and if we’re getting picky, Thanksgiving certainly celebrates an idea of America’s founding quite at odds with what we know of reality), so it was as an adult I decided I liked all holidays, happily throwing myself into the fun, shamelessly making up for lost time. Note: not all Quiverfull families eschew holidays like mine did. Some celebrate with fervent nativity scenes and an eye towards the “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign, complete with yard signs, getting angry or at least very annoyed by the neutral greeting of “Happy Holidays,” and some apparently even market niche gifts to Quiverfull families. Others go on screeds associating any holiday participation with later being thrown in a lake of fire. Perspectives seem to run the gamut on this one, with most large homeschooling families unsurprisingly finding holidays quite a struggle to do with all those kids, no matter what their theological bent, and many expressing worries that it is almost impossible to feel positively about any of it with all the gift-giving pressure, financial struggles, the logistics of extended family visits, etc.

Personally, I understand the issue of crowded spaces and the pressure of wanting to do nice things but having little money, as the first few Christmases I got gifts for all my siblings, I was a college student working part time, hence the start of my thrift store and craft project gifts. Most of the gifts I actually purchased were ridiculously small or token things, so I got creative. One year I even put packets of flavored oatmeal (something not normally purchased by our mother) as part of the stocking stuffers. They might laugh about it now, but back then it was nice to just get something.

I try to do whatever I can for Christmas every year because it was sad for me growing up smelling all the neighbors’ cooking, watching them gather and rush to their cars, dressed nicely, awkwardly trying to hug each other while carrying presents and dishes of homemade food. I wanted to be part of that happy feeling and have those fun times. So today I am all about holiday togetherness, particularly centering around traditional southern holiday dinners because my Grandma and I love to cook and neither are put off by the large amounts of fat and flavor that this sort of holiday fare contains.

Still, come to think about it, I really might be needing those kickboxing classes though. I ate fried turkey with friends night before last, made turkey and sausage gumbo with the leftovers yesterday, and am planning another Thanksgiving style dinner later on this week with some Pakistani students, neighbors of mine who expressed curiosity about this American holiday of stuffing and gravy. Right now I am trying to resist having a slice of leftover homemade pumpkin pie. This one may be a little healthier than a store bought version though, as I make it mildly sweet and do the pie crust with half whole wheat flour. My Mom had the obsessive health food ideas common among Quiverfull families, so we ate a crazy mix of healthy, “whole” foods and cheap carb-heavy dishes filled with noodles and cheese. Our go-to thing was actually spaghetti casserole instead of the now-infamous and iconic tater tot casserole, but nonetheless I learned how to cook using whole wheat flour and often still prefer using fruit and honey rather than sugar in recipes.

Anyway, although I didn’t get to be with my siblings or the cutest brand new baby nephew in the world this Thanksgiving, I will visit again soon. This year I had Thanksgiving dinner with some good friends who had their house appropriately crowded with yummy food and nice people. So yeah, I’m doing good, feeling thankful for a lot of stuff right now, and figured I’d share a brief, certainly not all-encompassing list of holiday thankfulness that’s been running through my head:

I am thankful for human resilience. We are more than the sum of our parts and our experiences. I am glad to have the opportunity to overcome hardship and be a positive person who enjoys life, thinking, and new experiences. Though I may be influenced by a difficult background (and have realized in the past few years that this is more so than I previously thought), I am not defined by it. The truth is that some of my favorite things were borne out of unhappy happenings, or from coping with dysfunctional situations, and rather than this connection making me sad, it increases my appreciation about some good things resulting and being part of my life.

I’m thankful for classic literature and the space and opportunity to read all kinds of books ranging from the KJV version of the bible, Gullivers Travels, Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens anthologies, and the Anne of Green Gables series as a preteen and teen. Literature truly saved me from having a dull childhood, brought beautiful and intense stories to me when I otherwise could not have experienced them, and this love of words helped me get additional education, career opportunities, and develop a pastime I still enjoy.

I am thankful that I had Thanksgiving growing up, so us kids generally had at least one holiday that felt sort of holiday-like. I am also thankful that it was on thanksgiving day at age 12 that I finally had the courage to stand up to my Dad for the first time. The results were ugly and painful, but after that I continued to do so for the benefit of my own inner self and for my siblings. Back then I could not control most of what happened, but I learned I could control how I reacted, and it was at that time that I first chose to fight back. I believe that choice and the strength to do so, wherever it came from, ultimately resulted in a better life for me and my siblings.

I am thankful that my siblings and I have much happier and fuller lives than it initially looked like we were ever going to get, largely because of my grandparents’ help. Things aren’t perfect, but everyone has food, clothing, shelter, education, love and an opportunity to pick what their own future trajectory should look like, including freedom to choose relationships, career, higher education, and when and whether to be a parent. My large sibling group and I are a family and often actually function like I always hoped and imagined family would do. That means the world to me.

I am thankful that my family does holidays now and that I could help bring that change about. After my parents split up during my freshman year of college, us kids held our own little Christmas celebration in my brother’s room, giving small token presents to each other around one of those miniature Christmas trees that usually goes on a desk. My Mom wanted to be invited to our celebration too, as a non-participating member, so after two years crowded together in my brother’s room, we moved it into the living room and bought a real tree, despite her misgivings. We will do that again this year and looking forward to this never gets old. Even my Mom, who remains a largely nonparticipating attendee and says she still doesn’t like the idea of Christmas, puts up with the reality of it and sometimes even seems to look forward to it herself because we all visit together and she gets to see her kids show each other kindness. We even get our Mom small quirky gifts we know she’d like sometimes, like maybe a jar of special organic honey made from cactus flowers or something, because it’s nice to see her smile too.

So today I am happy that my apartment smells like cinnamon candles, and I’m going to put up the Christmas tree tonight. I’m happy to be listening to holiday music on Pandora radio too, although actually just now I wasn’t. I was cringing and hitting the thumbs down on Michael Buble’s disturbing attempt at a dude-centric version of “Santa Baby.” I mean really, does he honestly think the sexy music and all those double-entendres can just be outright ignored?

Anyway, I am also thankful for the opportunity to have an opinion, a situation where I can give a “thumbs down” if I feel like it, a place where real life is not some secret I am supposed to pretend away for other people. I am grateful that I can choose what I want to do and not do, that nobody else’s theology or pronouncements keep me locked up someplace I find suffocating, that it is my decision when it comes to what to do with my life. I am thankful every day that I do not have to live in an abusive or neglectful environment anymore, and that for years it has been up to me to decide whether and how I want to work at overcoming the differences and residual damage left by the Quiverfull way of life. It truly means so much to me that I can set boundaries for how people are permitted to act towards me and even discontinue a conversation and walk away if I feel like it, because these were things I knew the value of but did not have for many years.

For many years I imagined I might never have the opportunity to openly enjoy simple things, like evergreen scented candles, twinkly lights, and decorating with ridiculous amounts of red and silver tinsel, or holding spiked egg nog, cuddling up on a couch with cozy blankets, and watching A Christmas Story when the weather is cold. Today I have that though and so much more. My life does not belong to another, it is not chained to a rigid ideology, and I am not pigeonholed as a helper or servant to someone else’s dreams. My life is my own today, to do with as I wish, and for that I am immensely thankful.