When you live a life of pain, it is sometimes hard to remember to be thankful for what you have. With daily doses of medicine, stiffness, exhaustion and painful messages being sent to your brain why would anyone be thankful for? The thing is, there is so much to be thankful for no matter how difficult your life may be.
Somewhere in my mind I always knew it was important to be thankful for all the wonderful things in life, but I truly learned that lesson when I traveled to Ethiopia in 1998. When most people think of Ethiopia, they will probably remember seeing pictures of starving children – their swollen bellies large against their minute frames while flies plagued their lips, eyes and ears. Bones so brittle they looked as though they would break just by standing on the dusty land beneath their feet. This was the Ethiopia of the 1980s, not the Ethiopia of the late 1990s. The Ethiopia I visited was a lush country filled with green fields, flowers, a mostly well-fed population and happiness. It was also a country at war.
My sister was a Peace Corps volunteer in Finote Selam a large town situated on the Gojam Road between Addis Ababa and Bahr Dar. My parents and I went to visit her in November 1998 for her birthday. I flew in from Los Angeles while my parents came from Washington, DC. My trip was routed in this manner – Los Angeles to London where I met my parents; London to Cairo that was delayed due to mechanical problems, we had to change travel arrangements to make a connection to Ethiopia; London to Dubai; Dubai to Addis Ababa. The return trip was Addis Ababa to Cairo; Cairo to London and London to Los Angeles. By the end of the trip, I had traveled exactly halfway around the world and back.
What I found in Ethiopia was another world. Addis Ababa is a large city – half modern, half not. You can drive down a street and see donkey trains carrying coal on their back next to a Land Rover. Black smoke from coal fires drifts from shacks built next to large homes with gates around them. Perhaps I was tired, or perhaps I was well shielded, but I did not notice any major conflicts between the two worlds that were crammed side-by-side into the narrow streets. In fact, I found places where pure happiness reigned.
Before leaving for Finote Selam, we took a tour of the area surrounding Addis Ababa and ended up on the top of a mountain looking down over the city. While we were up there, a group of children aged 1 to 17 came up to us wondering who the Fr nj (foreigners) were. They were surprised to hear my sister speak Amharic and clamored around her to hear more. She sat and talked with them while I took pictures. There was one boy who spoke English and wanted to practice so he came up to me and asked me how I wanted the other children to pose. He acted as my director and translator, gathering the children and having them pose, laugh and play. The laughter was genuine – the pictures are some of the best I have ever taken.
The next day we traveled to my sister’s town. It was a long drive, over 10 hours on roads that had been paved quite a while before this trip. Once we got there, a few things struck us. There were no paved roads in the town except the Gojam road. People were dressed in a variety of clothes and colors – with one item being most prevalent, their shawl. I don’t know the word for this shawl, but it covers them everywhere. They drape the shawls beautifully, covering their heads and shoulders, yet when someone approaches to take a picture of them, the shawl is gone in less than a second.
There was one picture I took that I remember to this day. There was a woman in the market selling spices from where she sat on the ground beneath the tent of her stall. She was beautiful, especially in the shawl, something in her eyes struck me and I knew I needed to take her picture. My sister asked for her permission, she nodded and instantly began removing the layers of her shawl. I asked her to not remove the shawl, but she refused. Instead she told me why she wanted to remove her covering. Beneath the shawl was a baldhead surrounded by a black headband. As she removed the layers of cloth she told me through my sister that she wanted my picture to reflect that she was in mourning. She had recently lost a brother and a husband to the war and wanted their passing to be noted in a picture somewhere in the world. The story gave me insight on her eyes, I agreed and took her picture. After the picture was taken, the woman went back to selling her wares wearing a smile and laughing with her customers. Weeks later, when I received my developed pictures from the lab, that picture stood out. I call it Mourning in Ethiopia – it is one of the few pictures I have named and to this day I want to do more with it than just have it in a scrapbook.
What does this story have to do with being thankful, you may be thinking to yourself about now. It was through watching people like this woman live the life they have, understanding that there are challenges but more often than not those challenges bring great reward, that I learned that I need to stop and be thankful for what I have rather than focus on what I don’t have. I have pain, but what I focus on is that I am not well. Today of all days I am making a new start with changing how I look at those aspects of my life.
Here is what I am thankful for this year.
I am thankful my son was born healthy and whole. He is a beautiful child who is full of laughter and love.
I am thankful for my wonderful husband who not only supported me physically during a very difficult pregnancy, but was there to help emotionally as well.
I am thankful for my husband’s family – a large American family where my son has four aunts, three uncles a grandfather who dotes on him, a grandmother who adores him and nine cousins. This family has accepted my family, bringing us under the umbrella of one big happy family.
I am thankful for my friends, old and new, who all watch out for me and make sure I take care of myself.
I am thankful for new beginnings. New chances to reinvent myself and see how the new role fits. New opportunities to work with new doctors to try to heal so I might see a day without pain without medication sometime in the future.
But mostly, I am thankful for my new family – my husband, my son and me. This was his first Thanksgiving. It was the best Thanksgiving I have ever had. A wonderful way to start new traditions.