Stand-still traffic. I had the windows open and I was breathing in the exhaust from seven thousand cars all trying to get home. There was fruitcake sitting in my passenger seat, glazed in bourbon sauce. A Mark Twain book beside it.
The cake had arrived on my porch anonymously. Along with it, a hardback book, “Life on the Mississippi.” And a card with one sentence on it: “Thank you, Sean.”
So, right there in traffic, I began eating this fruitcake with both hands.
Meanwhile, in my windshield I saw a kid riding a bicycle along the highway shoulder. He was making better time than us motorists in pickup trucks, SUVs, and sassy sports cars.
I waved at him. He waved back. The boy looked so happy compared to the rest of us, and his smile was catching. Soon, I was smiling too. I don’t even know why.
Suddenly, my smile made me hyper-aware of the madness going on around me. It was like someone had peeled open my crusty eyelids and knocked the fruitcake from my hands. Have you noticed how loud our world is?
Through my open windows I could hear stereos blaring adrenaline-fueled political talk radio. The vehicle behind played angry-sounding music with subnuclear bass notes that rattled my molars. A guy in a Pontiac was shouting into his cellphone. It was chaos, I tell you.
But somehow, I was still smiling in spite of it all. All because of some random kid on a bike, and one anonymous thank-you package.
Then I started thinking about how much unthankfulness is in the world, and how I don’t want to be the guy who perpetuates it.
So, while a mass of idling vehicles clogged the Florida interstate system like a kidney stone from hell, I removed a notepad and began making a list.
This is a sacred practice passed down by my mother, who made me list things I was grateful for so she could tack them to the refrigerator and, God-willing, use them against me.
The first item I’m thankful for is the month of November. And here’s why:
About eight months ago, I didn’t think we’d even make it to November. When COVID first hit, I was traveling for work in a big city, and it was like a mini-apocalypse.
Bars and restaurants were boarding up windows, there were mile-long lines outside stores. And my first thought was: “Heaven help us when the holidays come.”
But just look at us. November is here. You’re alive. So am I. And that’s something to be grateful for.
I’m also grateful for books. More grateful than ever. During this pandemic I’ve been reading to pass the time, and I’ve never found so much literary joy amidst the drudgery of self-isolation.
When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was be a maker of books. I adored them. I loved their odor. I loved the way they made my brain feel. Still do.
Surprisingly, the rest of the U.S. still loves books, too. No matter how technological we’ve gotten, Americans are reading the heck out of paper material. About 73 percent of us still read physical books. Which is great news because in this digital age, I get concerned that we are forgetting about all Gutenberg’s hard work. But that’s not happening. And I’m thankful.
I should also restate that I’m grateful for this fruitcake I just told you about. When I found it on my porch a few days ago, along with a hard bound copy of Twain’s book, I got warm and fuzzy all over.
Because here’s the thing. It’s only November. Fruitcake season is still a LONG way off. Which means we still get two more months of this unashamedly premature holiday spirit.
Before I could tear into the cake, however, my wife confiscated it and whipped up a bourbon glaze. This is what my people do for fruitcake. In fact, during my childhood, the only time I ever saw sober-minded church ladies lay a finger on a Wild Turkey bottle was to doctor fruitcake, bread pudding, or to pour it down the sink while quoting the Psalms.
Oh, yes. Bread pudding. I’m thankful for that, too, since we’re on the subject.
My wife is known for having the best peach bread pudding in six countries. She uses a recipe she has been perfecting for three decades. She can make this stuff in her sleep. Literally.
I have been startled awake at 3 a.m. to find my wife in the kitchen, making bread pudding. This is what it’s like being married to a chef.
Which leads me to the end of my list—I’m skipping over a lot because I saved the best for last.
I just read a study that said depression is sky high in America. Not only because of coronavirus, but also because of the glowing screens in modern life. You can’t get away from screens. They’re everywhere. Just when you think you’re finally alone and have tranquility, your phone vibrates and lights up to remind you that the world is falling apart.
I don’t know if I could have made it through this societal depression without my wife. Which is why I wrote her name on my list in bold print. Then I underlined it.
She has kept my head from rolling off my shoulders.
Before I finished scribbling in my notebook, traffic started moving again. So I dusted crumbs off my shirt and reached for another piece of fruitcake. But there was none left. I’d finished the entire thing.
Vehicles started to creep ahead. I soon passed the kid on the bike again. He was still moving forward. Still pedaling. Still smiling. I waved. He waved back.
I’m thankful for that kid, too.