Papa’s Thoughts: On Gratitude, the Merits of Thorny Paths, and “Doity Hands” at the Table of Life

Thanksgiving, the holiday season and the New Year often bring with them reflections on gratitude. Even if not of our own doing, there is usually someone that looks around the room at some point and asks, “And what are you grateful for this year?”

We take for granted that we should hear thanks for “food,” and “family.” We hope to hear appreciation for “health,” “a job,” or “a home.” We may even be so blessed as to hear about a vast array of material possessions and opportunities to explore life and self.

We may have been lucky enough to have heard all of those things. But…have you ever heard someone say they were grateful for something other than those items listed in the traditional “good stuff” columns?  Have you ever heard someone say “I’m grateful I lost my job”? Or “I’m grateful I got sick”? Or, “I’m grateful the storm took away the house and everything in it”? Have you ever heard someone give thanks just for being “at the table,” regardless of what they were served?

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a lecture about counting your blessings or unanswered prayers. Papa wasn’t about seeing things that way. This isn’t a monologue about acknowledging that things could be much worse, children starving in Africa, or crying because I had no shoes until I met a man with no legs. These words are not about sermons, they are about choices. Specifically, about choosing whether to live your life or allow your life to live you.

 “Let go or be dragged.” ~American proverb

“This is your world, create it or someone else will.” ~Gary Lew

In How Do We Love?, in the chapter called, “The Finer Things in Life,” Papa faces one of his lowest points:

 “He admitted he’d had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and considered for the first and almost the last time in his existence cashing in his chips, voluntarily taking, as he called it, ‘the big doit nap.’”

Papa only occasionally spoke aloud about some of the more negative events in his life, but there were many. His father died when he was 4, then his beloved stepfather. His mother left him and his sisters and he lived in the dining room of some generous relatives for a number of years. He had to work several jobs most of his adult life, lost all of his money at the age of 45, and then learned he had colon cancer not long after that.  He told me of those circumstances not to live in the past, or gain pity. He talked of them to teach me that even though we “may get dealt a doity hand” at some points in life, we still have choices in what we do with it.

Choices in what we do with it. Not necessarily a choice in the actual events, mind you, because at the great blackjack table of life, most of the cards Papa had to contend with were not of his own draw. They were dealer hands that he felt he had no say in, ones he could not control in a physical sense. But control them he eventually did. Ultimately he regained the upper hand at the table, and he even managed to become grateful as those “losing” hands helped him realize his most important lesson of all– that he was not a victim. That he was not at the mercy of the whip end of some ill-tempered universe. That he would not be dragged.  His control, my dear friends, lay not in controlling the actual events, but making the conscious choice to control his attitude and reactions to them. To make the decision to either lean in, collect himself, and “stagger forward, triumphantly”, or lean back and allow the world to stomp all over him.

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” ~Viktor Frankl

One of the greatest practitioners and purveyors of this approach to dealing with life’s biggest challenges was Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was the astonishing Austrian psychologist that lived during World War I and was taken as a prisoner, along with his entire family, to the Nazi concentration camps. His family was murdered, but Viktor Frankl survived and even thrived after he was released. He went on to remarry, have children, and pursue a prolific career as a psychologist, saving many lives and writing over 30 books, including the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Man’s Search for Meaning became one of history’s greatest literary testaments to the power of human will and determination. In it, Frankl told his story of the three years he spent in the camps and defined how his survival was possible– an act he attributed completely to the way he perceived himself and the horrific events around him. He found that the dirt of terrible, terrible things, when sifted through a colander of determination, self-meaning, service to others, and even humor, is mystically cleansed. The cleansing occurs because our perception filters out and even transforms the dirt, at least in our own eyes and hearts.  And the positive, affirming choices we make as we encounter each terrible thing transforms us. The transformation occurs because, at some point, we begin to realize that we do have choice. What was once a feeling of being completely out of control becomes a realization that we now have …control.

This approach does not suggest that the challenge will magically go away. Although it might.

This approach does not suggest that you will never again feel pain or sorrow or difficulty or stress. We all know how our opportunistic internal hobgoblins make efforts to rise up and be heard in the weakest of moments.

This approach does not suggest that the trouble, the trauma, the tears, the anger need to be suppressed. On the contrary, those emotions must be greeted and tended to- like unexpected visitors you would really rather not have but need to be kind to nonetheless, lest they ravage your house and make off with the fine china when you are not looking. Those emotions must be acknowledged and honored. We need to mourn, rage, or rant, and then embrace them, and, ultimately, release them. And keep releasing, for as long as it takes.

 “It made me reflect on the total unpredictability of existence. How the only certainty in life is that it will change. How we have choices to make about dealing with that change. We can persist in mourning the loss, the discomfort, the other-than-expected. Or we can choose to accept the difference, be grateful for all that we have, and then change and flow with it. Let bygones be bygones.” ~excerpt from How Do We Love?, The Only Certainty in Life

 The collective energy of our present times is fast paced, and often chaotic and unpredictable. I hear people using phrases such as, “It seems like every bad thing is hitting me all at once,” Or “Why is this happening to me?” Or “Is it ever going to get better?” If we hear ourselves saying these things, aloud or not, then it is the time when we must take action and make our choice.  It is at this exact point that we can allow ourselves to get flung around on the coattails of life, feeling victimized, refusing to loosen our grip. Or we can let go, pick ourselves up, lean in, and make the conscious decision that we don’t want that thing, that event, that issue, that person, to have that much power over our entire life. Whatever it is, whatever is so terrible, it is not us. It is only one small piece of what happens to be taking place in our huge, beautiful, elaborate lives at any given moment. When we fixate on the portrait of our woes, it may deceptively fill the lens, but if we pull away from behind the camera, the entire landscape and beyond comes into view.

“He said he would not change a thingthere existed much more personal growth on his bumpy, uneven road than on the ‘path less thorny,’ as he called it. He constantly reminded me of the importance of challenging events and decisions in shaping his life and who he had become.”~excerpt from How Do We Love?, The Finer Things in Life

Remember before, when I said this was not going to be a sermon about counting your blessings, unanswered prayers, acknowledging that things could be much worse, children starving in Africa, or crying because I had no shoes? Well, looking back at all of these words, I guess I lied a little. It is, kind of, about all those things. But that was not my intention. My intention was to remind us that, regardless of come what may, we do, indeed, always have a choice.

So what can we do? How can we do our best to go from victim to Viktor? How can we, in the words of Dr. Seuss, not cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened? Papa had realized, after many early wounds, that continuous applications of a salve of self-pity and a mask of suppressive bandages only keeps the skin and spirit frail, weak and on the verge of suffocation. He realized that even the deepest of cuts mend the best when exposed to an air of determination, selflessness, humor, and, eventually, gratitude. He witnessed time and again as he not only healed from this self-prescribed technique, but grew stronger and better as a result. And over time he came up with his own version of the steps he needed to take when he found himself with the cuts and contusions one gets from dancing on a thorny path. Here, I share my version of his version with you:

  • Step 1:  “Figure out what’s making ya unhappy– then figure out why it’s makin’ ya unhappy, and if there’s anything ya can do about it. If it’s somethin’ ya can change, then fah god’s sake, kid, get out there and change it. But If ya can’t change it, then, welp, whaddya gonna do? It is what it is.”
  • Step 2: “Go ahead and feel like hell for a little bit. Think about what its done to ya, to ya life. Let yahself curse it if ya want, cry if ya need to, feel a little bit sorry for yahself, admit that ya wish it nevah happened or could just go away.”
  • Step 3: “Make ya choice. Ya can sit in a puddle o’ ya own pity, or ya can pick ya head up, wipe off ya face, blow yah nose and tell them it’s time to go. That yah not havin’ any of it any more.”
  • Step 4: “Once ya let it go, stop lookin’ at it fah god’s sake. See through it. See past it to what else is theyah. Can I loin somethin’ from it? Did somethin’ good come from it?”
  • Step 5: “Keep choosin’. When it comes to visit, ‘cause it will visit, choose. As many times as ya need to, choose between leanin’ back and getting poked with a stick over and over, or leaning forward and takin’ the stick away.”
  • Step 6: “Say Thanks. Maybe not at foist, maybe not for a long time, but at some point, ya gotta shake its hand.”

Papa’s last step, to me, is the ultimate goal and the most important. Gratitude is the greatest, most powerful tool of transformation. Now, maybe we are not yet at the point where we can be grateful for whatever is going on. Maybe it’s too soon, maybe it’s too big, maybe it’s just more than we think we can bear to try to conjure up now- or ever.  But if we can’t yet be grateful for the things that are going wrong, perhaps we can recognize and be grateful for all that is going right: If we can’t yet be grateful for the looney co-worker that is teaching us much needed lessons in patience and ego, then let us be grateful that we have a job in which to encounter such a co-worker. If we can’t yet be grateful for our family member’s illness that is teaching us about selflessness and unconditional love, then let’s be grateful for that family member and all the beautiful facets that exist beyond and between their episodes of illness.  If we can’t yet be grateful for our disease and the lessons it is teaching us about slowing down, taking care of ourselves, and living life to the fullest, then let us be grateful for the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with symptoms or doctor visits or worry- even if those parts exist only in moments and seem few and far in-between.

If we can’t yet be grateful for the “doity hands we been dealt,” then let’s at least be grateful we are still at the table.

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Papa Recipe #2 – Fairy Food

“Papa sometimes talked about that time of scarcity, when they would have a meal with very little food—but they always managed to have something. Sustenance would show up and he knew never to ask where it came from, just to be grateful that it was there.”~excerpt from How Do We Love?, Real Life, Papa Style

In honor of the spirit of being grateful for whatever we have at the table, I’ve chosen a dish that represents “La Cucina Povera”- menu items from the Italian “poor kitchen,” or what some people call “peasant food.” These kinds of meals reflected the Italians’ (and other low income immigrants’) abilities to take whatever minimal ingredients or scraps they had available and turn them into delicious, filling feasts that could serve platoons of family members and friends.

It is important to note here that some people are offended by the use of these terms “La Cucina Povera” and “peasant food.” Many consider these traditional recipes to be merely what their ancestors happened to eat, using ingredients that they had on their land at the time. For our purposes, however, these are dishes that both Papa and Mama explained to me as being “peasant food” – dishes they made when they had little income and did not have many ingredients to work with. We still eat these dishes today, but now with more ingredients- as you will see with the “regular” and “Deluxe” versions of Fairy Food!

Some examples of “La Cucina Povera” meals that were common in Papa’s and Mama’s kitchens included:

  • Pasta y Fagioli: a soup made of water, salt, garlic, a few beans and pasta. In better times onions, greens, carrots, celery, tomato sauce, parmagiano cheese, chicken stock and even pancetta were added.
  • Pasta a olio: a pasta dish with pasta and a little bit of olive oil, garlic and salt. In better times a few more ingredients were added, like broccoli and parmesan cheese, but the original recipe is pretty tasty!
  • Fried Dough- a simple dough of flour, water and baker’s yeast, deep fried in any oil available, usually leftover grease which was stored in a bell jar under the sink. As times and money evolved, Papa and Mama used fresh olive oil and added sugar to the outside for a sweet treat, or cheese, anchovies and other savory ingredients for a filling snack.
  • Pizza- a basic dough with whatever ingredients they were able to scrape up from local markets or leftovers. Usually included over-ripe tomatoes made into sauce, some shredded cheese, and a little oregano. As budgets increased, pizzas got more cheese and even a meat layer – pepperoni was popular in the house, and when they were being really extravagant, spicy Italian pork sausage.
  • Fairy Food – Check out the simple recipe below!

Fairy Food

This recipe is in Papa’s cupboard, but it is originally Mama’s recipe. The first time she made it, the kids wanted nothing to do with the squash and refused to eat it – until she told them that the squash was the food of the fairies that lived around the house and garden. The tale continued that these fairies were always trying to help out, watch and protect the family, and they had generously given of their favorite meal, squash, for the family dinner. Mama advised the kids that the fairies would be very offended if they did not eat the meal made with the fairies’ squash. The kids ate it, loved it, and every time this meal was presented, the kids would say, “Yum! You made Fairy Food!”

Ingredients:

  • Sweet Onions
  • Yellow Squash or Zucchini ( The fairies donated yellow squash but this is just as good with zucchini…)
  • Garlic powder
  • Salt
  • Sautee the onions in a large saucepan with a little olive oil until the onions are mushy (not brown!)
  • Slice the squash into rounds or half rounds and throw in with the onions, add a little bit of water so they steam up together
  • Sprinkle garlic powder and salt over the mix and stir!
  • Fairy Food is done when onions and squash are thoroughly steamed and mushy

Fairy Food “Deluxe”

When they had more money, Grandma Rosina used to make a version with eggs and grated parmesan cheese. Mama says this one is more “festive looking.”

  • Scramble a few eggs, and mix in some parmesan cheese
  • Once the squash and onions are finished cooking, leave them in the saucepan and pour the egg/ cheese mixture right over the top of the onions and squash
  • Cover with saucepan lid until eggs are cooked
  • Lightly salt eggs and serve!

Enjoy this Oliviero family tradition! We hope it brings you as much gratitude as it does to all of us!

Ci vediamo la prossima mese! See you next month!