Grateful for Dirty Dishes. And Taxes

Dirty dishes(Photo: ilovedthecoffee)As April heats up and that midnight-on-the-15th deadline approaches, even the most civic-minded of us can end up feeling stressed and crabby about taxes. A quarter of households (like mine) will procrastinate until the last two weeks to take care of a task that can feel like an annual headache. As odd as it may sound in this context, reframing those tax forms as an opportunity to count your personal blessings and America’s blessings might be a mental health lifesaver.

Research shows that deliberately counting blessings or keeping “gratitude lists” has a host of mental health benefits, and cultivating a habit of gratitude reduces negative affect like resentment, irritability, stress, and depression.

My cousin Robyn is a hard-working mother of three whose joints don’t function as well as they once did. In fact, they hurt. A lot. The day-to-day can be a challenge, and most people in her situation do a fair bit of grumbling. But Robyn recently posted on Facebook: Lord, I thank You for dirty clothes, muddy shoes, messy rooms, a dusty house, tired legs, aching knees, and taxes. I thank You that I have clothes, shoes, a room to make a mess in, a house to get dirty, legs that work, knees that bend and a free country in which I can pay taxes.

Her words transported me all the way back to my childhood, to the 1962 tract house where I shared a room with two sisters, and a bathroom with another two brothers, and kitchen chores with the whole family – except that left of the kitchen sink was frequently stacked high with items waiting to be scrubbed, and the drainer seemed always full. But on the other side of the sink, attached to the upper cabinet, was a little sign that read, “Thank God for dirty dishes; they have a tale to tell; while others may be hungry; we’re eating very well. . . .” As a short child up to my elbows in soapy water, I liked the sign and I liked washing dishes, and I still like them both – most of the time – to this day.

I first broadened my appreciation from dirty dishes to taxes on a trip to Guatemala. My husband and I were winding our way up unpaved mountain roads in a “retired” American school bus, three to a seat, knees to our chests, on our way to language school in the highland village of Todos Santos. As the bus ground around gullies and erosion and potholes, it struck me, rather hard, that we get something for our tax money. The thought struck again when, once settled with a village family, we visited the local grade school. There, children were attempting to learn math, reading and writing without such basics as textbooks and paper, let alone the brightly colored posters and media and other learning tools I had taken for granted as a child. I’ve had a Canadian attitude toward taxes ever since (well, at least when my better self is in charge).

The Guatemalan roads and school may have brought the pattern into focus, but really, it was my parents who sketched the lines. If any bunch of five kids were primed to appreciate the bounty that we Americans share and that our taxes sustain, it was us. Public school classrooms that did have books and paper gave way each spring to summers spent traversing the interstate highway system, hiking, and sleeping in state parks, and poking through small-town museums and stretching out on picnic benches in a roadside rest stops. We saw astounding wonders – the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi River, Carlsbad Caverns, the Badlands – and got our heads filled with history at old monuments like Montezuma’s Castle and the Vicksburg Civil War cemetery. We slogged single file in scruffy boots up Pikes Peak and through Maroon Bells wilderness, with backpacks on, and eventually learned to love it.

As a teen, I read a book called Mama’s Bank Account about a Norwegian immigrant family scraping by in San Francisco at the turn of the century. Week after week, in the story, they carefully count out money to cover expenses, and the mother comments how good it is that they don’t have to take money from their bank account. Only after the children are grown do they find that the bank account doesn’t exist; Mama has made it up to give them a sense of security and prosperity. For me as a child, the delicious knowledge that I was a part-owner, albeit a very small shareholder, in America the Beautiful was my equivalent of Mama’s bank account. When life felt overwhelming, I imagined those highways and parks, familiar and beautiful, all places I was allowed to be because I had been born in the Land of the Free. To this day, when I travel to other countries, and natural wonders like caves or geysers are fenced off with private property signs and exorbitant entry fees, the child in me protests: But, but they’re supposed to belong to everyone!

As one who has received so many benefits from this country, it pains me sometimes how much of our national conversation is about taxes. It’s like going into a department store where the merchandise is all hidden behind enormous price tags. Our representatives spend so much time quarreling about who’s going to carry what share of the tax “burden,” that there’s no time left for the dish-washing, mess-scrubbing, everyday work that it takes to keep our communities great. We get so ground down from fighting with each other that we have a hard time coming together to ask the important questions: What do we want for our children? What do we want for our community? What do we want for our country? We put so much emotional energy into nursing resentment about those so-called “burdens” that we sometimes forget how astoundingly much we have received, both from those who came before us and from this extraordinary land of purple mountains and spacious skies.

Robyn’s Facebook prayer and my mother’s sign both were notes to self. They were small acts of commitment to living deliberately in a sense of bounty and gratitude, even when knees are sore and hands are chapped and the housekeeping seems endless. Affirmations like theirs get us out of our normal way of thinking and focus us on life’s goodness, and they have clear health and mental health benefits for us and people around us. Cultivating gratitude leads to better sleep, greater goal attainment, better relationships, more mutual support, and a stronger love life.

Gratitude as a life posture or a sense of being “blessed” is something that religious people talk about mostly in church and secular people like me, who have given up that traditional forum and vocabulary, mostly keep to ourselves. But Robyn, in her note, did an interesting thing. By adding taxes to her list, she crossed a boundary. Not the boundary between church and state – that one’s been crossed plenty of late – but the boundary between civic life and spiritual life. I wonder what it would it mean for our country if more of us said, to a God or to the universe: “I thank You that I have roads to maintain, schoolbooks to buy, a sewer to mend, rivers and mountains to protect and a free country in which I can pay taxes.”