What my Mom and Travel Taught me about Thanksgiving

It was one year ago this week, that I remember sitting in the living room of my sister’s house, as my mother and I did something together that we hadn’t done since I lived at home: watch the Carolina Panthers play football. While we had shared this moment many times before, there was something more nostalgic about this time. Whether it was me being older and more mature, the nature of the trip (having decided only days before to travel back east to surprise my mom for Thanksgiving), or something else, I don’t know. Some moments we talked about how I was settling into my new west coast home, while other moments I tried to explain the game, and still other moments, we just sat there quietly.

After a couple hours of this, my mom stood up, gave me her quintessential pat on the shoulder, and asked me to do something that she had done so much for me as a kid, saying, "Spencer, it's past my bedtime, but just write down the score and place it on the dining room table before you go to bed. I love you and just continue to make the best." I smirked at my mom's 'ole adage she had told me so many times before, nodded, and gave her a hug goodbye, as I would be up before sunrise the next morning to catch my flight back to the west coast.

That was the last time I saw my mom. I've often wrestled with Thanksgiving Day like I've wrestled with Valentine's Day. Now don't get me wrong, I love a deep-fried turkey, anything pumpkin (why can't Starbucks serve Pumpkin spice lattes year-round?!), homemade mashed taters, biscuits, and all of that good stuff. But I don't want to just try to conjure up feelings on this one day. I don't want to make concerted attempts to be grateful or especially loving for one day out of the year, yet go about every other day ungrateful. But this idea of "thanksgiving," both the expression and the holiday, has come to mean something different to me recently.

It was nearly three years ago that I sat on a Costa Rica beach at sunset, just like I had sat on a Central America beach for the last 90 days, where I had been traveling and living abroad. As I sat there (alongside an orphan dog watching the sunset with me), I saw the same sun setting from a similar spot over the same ocean that I had seen the last 90 days. But this time was different. I did something that night that I hadn't done like that in years. I balled my eyes out. I wasn't sad, heartbroken, or mad. In fact, I was happier in that moment than I had ever been. But it all came to a head on that night. Recent months and years had seen me lose my father, lost my grandmother, lose my dream job, pile up debt, and undergo a divorce. I had left my so-called life, not to run away from it, but rather because I thought I needed to throw a monkey wrench in the spokes. And while I earnestly hoped that some good would come out of it, I had no idea that greatness would come out of it, setting a new course for my life.

I cried on the beach that night not out of sorrow, but out of humility, joy, and gratitude. Out of the darkness shone light, out of despair existed hope, out of the monotony came beauty. I may have road tripped from one end of America to another, I may have had to get lost in Central America, I may have accidentally destroyed my passport, and I may have illicitly crossed a border, but on that beach in Costa Rica I found the missing puzzle pieces of my life, and started putting them together. What resulted was that I began to view life, as Randy Pausch viewed it, as a hand of cards. I couldn't change the hand I had been dealt, only how I played my hand.

12 months ago, after several minutes of sobbing hysterically on my apartment floor upon hearing of my mother's unexpected passing, I sat up, wiped the tears from my eyes, and made a conscious decision to make the very best of that situation. My mom had an unwavering ability to be grateful and make the best of every situation, no matter what it was, good or bad. If she ever lost her shit, I never saw it. She always managed to be composed and strong both for herself and those around her. She may have not been there to be strong for my sisters and I, yet her legacy in both her life and her words about making the best of every situation, had found root in those she had imparted it to. I wasn't going to lose my shit. I wasn't going to be bested. I was going to play this hand as it was dealt to me the best I could.

Not I--not anyone else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.--Walt Whitman

Anyone knows me well knows that on my 30th birthday this year, I got the Hebrew word, "תימשל," tattooed just below the wrist of my non-dominant hand. I'm not Jewish, but I found its meaning to resonate with me the last couple years. In English, it's "timshel," which derives from a song title of one of my favorite bands, Mumford & Sons, as well as from one of my favorite novels, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The phrase comes from the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis in the Bible. While many have interpreted the English translation of this passage to read "thou shalt," timshel actually means "thou mayest." It gives us freedom of choice. It is within us to choose one way or the other, right or wrong, good or bad, better or best. And taking personal responsibility and choosing to not do what's expected, but rather what I want and what I think is best, has made all the difference the last couple years.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.-John Steinbeck

This Thanksgiving is special. I, my sisters, and all of their kids are together for the first Thanksgiving in what's probably been years. Since my mom's house closed this month, we don't have the same "home" now like we once did. We may not have a traditional Thanksgiving meal like mom used to make. We may not gather around the table of the house we grew up in. But we have new home lives that we've built elsewhere. We have our passports. We have each other. We have wine (for the first holiday ever). And we have a legacy that our mother left us. And if we play our cards right, we may just wake up to a snow-covered ground on Thanksgiving (something we never had growing up in North Carolina). That's a lot to be thankful for.

I'm not one to believe that we need a day to be thankful for something or someone. Most of us would probably agree that you don't have to travel around the world to learn about gratitude. But I did. You may not have to travel around the world for the idea of thanksgiving to hit home for you, but sometimes we do need to uproot our lives to see that life is much bigger than ourselves, that the world doesn't revolve around us, that no matter what shit we're going through, someone has it worse. The last year alone has seen a lot of things uprooted from my life. I've lost my mom and moved (twice). Yet if you saw me right now, you'd see my eyes welling up and a grin from ear to ear on my face.

I'm thankful for sisters who I get and who get me. I'm thankful to have nearly done 30 new things this year that I've always wanted to do, but never done. I'm thankful for roommates who I enjoy coming home to. I'm thankful to be in year four of freelancing full-time. I'm thankful for those Yoda-like visionaries in my life who have taken risks for me and see the silver lining in the clouds that I don't always see. I'm thankful to be surrounded by people who are better than me and teach me how to navigate the waters of life. I'm thankful for drinking buddies I can go to the bar with on the weekend to watch football with. I'm thankful for a city that's welcomed me like its own as if I've lived there my entire life. I'm thankful for 7-Eleven (because sometimes you just want nachos at 2 a.m.). I'm thankful to live in a city that I'm genuinely excited to date in for the first time (a city I can truly call home). I'm thankful for how Twitter and this blog has helped forge my closest relationships. I'm thankful for you. Really, if you didn't read it, I wouldn't publish it. Whoever you are and wherever you live, Happy Thanksgiving. May we always take moments to be thankful for where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going.