Eleven years ago this month, I read an article in The Sun Magazine about gratitude, diapers, and where love lives.
I had the magazine because back when I lived in Portland, OR as a graduate student my mom gifted it to me for my birthday … five years in a row.
It was one of those “hippy rags” that always had black-and-white photos on their cover of urban landscapes or elderly people whose weathered faces were suppose to make you rethink what the word “beautiful” meant. Its articles offered a rare mix of homespun wisdom from well-educated English majors with just a hint of political and philosophical seasoning.
I rarely read it.
But in December of 2004, I did.
The article was entitled “Many Thanks: Gregg Kretch on the Revolutionary Practice of Gratitude.”
At the time, Kretch and his wife were the “founders and operators of the ToDo Institute, a nonprofit center in Monkton, Vermont, that [offered] educational programs on Japanese psychology”; namely “a form of self-reflection called Naikan (pronounced ‘Nye-con’), which translates as ‘inside looking.’”
Both Buddhists, the couple specialized in trauma treatment as well as more mundane therapeutic dilemmas through two practices: gratitude and self-examination.
As Gregg explained:
It’s common for someone in counseling to blame other people — parents, spouses, exes — for the way he or she is.
Little time is given to developing a sense of appreciation for what other people have done for you.
And it’s the uncommon shape that appreciation takes that struck me most: diapers.
Probing Kretch on Naikan’s systematic approach to reflection, which usually starts with the patient’s parents, the interviewer asked:
I’ve heard that a common assignment given to participants … is to calculate the number of diapers their parents changed for them when they were a baby. This seems a little silly. Isn’t it enough just to acknowledge that your parents changed a lot of diapers?
I can’t say my mother changed “a lot” of dirty diapers for the same reason my bank statement doesn’t say I wrote “a lot” of checks, and the deed to my property doesn’t say I have “a lot” of acreage.
Truth is in the details.
With that decade-old lesson on the power details and diapers still pressing on my mind, a week ago I set about the task of loving one of the most important people in my life … my father, Michael Orendorff.
I wrote him a “thank you” letter: a twenty-one point thank you letter.
Here’s what I sent.
I’ve been meaning to write you for some time now.
But just like you said six months ago on my 33rd birthday, “As with most resolutions, it took days [or, in my case, weeks] to finally come around to doing it.”
The truth is you’ve come up a lot in the last few weeks.
Well … not you per say; but the subject of “Dads.”
A friend of mine lost his father three weeks ago and—in two separate readings—the whole issue of “resentments transformed” also reared its head.
I say that not as a backdoor to bring up anything from the past (even less to paint this letter with a backhanded tone) … but instead to say this: you love me well.
That isn’t something most of the people I know can say about their father. Really, it’s not something most people in the world can say.
But you do … you love me well.
Still, as David [my uncle] pointed out after your Thanksgiving email, love lives in the details.
So, in the spirit of details … here’s why you love me well.
You taught me what type of salad to buy, and which to avoid. Iceberg = bad. Spring mix (especially spinach and kale) = good.
The letter you wrote me on my birthday last year was the best present I’ve received in 33 years … from anyone.
You weren’t just a blessing at my wedding, you went the unbelievable extra mile of coordinating with the colors.
You send me this text when I told you about the difficulties I was having getting my daughters [from a previous marriage] to the wedding:
Having the law on your side statement reminds me of the warning given to bicyclists. You may have the right of way but when 1600 pounds of steel hits you, you still lose.
You’re honest with me. (See number 4.)
You gave me your genetics. (Not sure if that really counts. You didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter, but I’m still very grateful.)
You made sure I never went hungry … ever.
You gave me a work ethic that in every area of my life has made all the difference. (I’m constantly grateful for this one. In fact, I share it with my philosophy classes at the college whenever the issue of grace comes up. So much of who I am is due to the nature and nurture you passed on. In other words, I have very little to do with my success.)
You introduced me to Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis, which—speaking of philosophy classes—is something I constantly use as a teaching tool and as a tool in my personal life.
You gave me intelligence. Talk about grace and (again) something I can’t take credit for.
You love in the details. Case in point: the Thanksgiving email you sent that was about exactly why you’re grateful for every member of our extended family … name by name.
You and Melinda [my stepmom] immediately embraced me and showed me incredible grace when my life fell apart three years ago. I called you from jail, which I’m sure is every parent’s ideal situation after a multi-year silence from their son. But the way you opened your lives back up to me was staggering. No questions. No guilt. No belittling. No shame. Just love. (Extra love because you didn’t bail me out.)
You don’t just read the stuff I publish … you proofread it.
You celebrate my “wins,” like the first time I guest posted on Copyblogger; even though you had no idea what Copyblogger was.
You (and Melinda) “blow up” my Facebook account with 20-30 “Likes” at least once a month. That always makes me smile and feel loved.
You taught me to be grateful … for small things and big things alike.
You read to me. In particular, you read C.S. Lewis to me … something I’m doing with my own daughters now before they go to bed.
You’re on Twitter.
You married Melinda. (Wow … I can’t say “thank you” enough for that move. Good work.)
Physically and athletically, you’re a beast. I joke with my friends that I realized long ago I’m never going to be stronger or faster than my dad … I’m just gonna have to wait until he gets weaker. 😉
You’re the best conversationalist I know. I loved watching you connect with my friends the night of the rehearsal dinner, but I wasn’t surprised. Your wit, genuine interest in other people, and intelligence make you (hands down) my favorite person to talk to.
Thank you for being my dad.
And for loving me well.
So … why am I sharing all this?
Because now is the time of year we shop for cards with words we’d never pen and frantically scribble down platitudes to fill in the blanks.
But that’s not where love lives.
Love lives in the specifics … in the nitty gritty and rarely beautiful details of what actually happened.
Whether it’s color coordinating at a wedding, pointing out the difference between salad types, or counting diapers, it’s not the devil that’s in the details … it’s salvation.
My hope is that you’ll take some time to write your own thank you letter before the year ends.
If you do, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.