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Slouching Toward Gratitude
My Prayers for the Holidays, 2006
By Annabelle Gurwitch

This year in the holiday season, when 200 people died in one day in Baghdad, an old friend of mine was senselessly murdered by a random stranger who, "quote," was having a bad day (note to self, never complain to workmen about construction noise), and another friend, the 37-year-old mother of a 18-month-old boy, was succumbing to advanced stage breast cancer, it seemed appropriate to announce that I have kicked a habit. For years I've wrestled with this monkey on my back. Like a secret drinker, outwardly I've cultivated the cynical nonchalance of the nonbeliever, but in truth, in a pinch, for the satisfaction of my own petty and selfish needs, I was addicted to God.

I secretly prayed to this God I didn't believe in, to satisfy my personal needs -- please God, let our old plumbing last another year, let my kid take a nap, find a good parking space, let my book be in the low three digits on Amazon today!

Ironically, this giving up God stuff presented some unlikely complications.

Firstly, I find myself strangely compelled to honor my mother and father as I will now be forgoing the annual repentance festival known as Yom Kippur wherein God forgives all of your transgressions in one fell swoop. I always loved this holiday because a God who would deign to forgive everybody, all at once, in one day, well, that's a God with some largess, a God who lives large, knows how to show you a good time, it's a forgiveness blow out. It's the Crazy Eddie sale on "I'm sorry," and at the top of my list was always -- I'm sorry for the manner in which I have disrespected my parents since the day of my birth. So for the first time ever, I invited my parents to town to host them for Thanksgiving. Their primary interest was to have my son accompany them to restaurants all over Los Angeles. And bathrooms. I chauffeured them from meal to meal, and restroom to restroom, from one end of LA to the other. Which I dutifully did, engaging in only one time honored argument -- do we really need to stop and have brunch if we've eaten breakfast and are heading to lunch? For six days I waited on them, making daily trips to the pharmacy, which my father felt for some reason the need to announce every day, "Your mother is constipated and needs to get an enema."

"Please Dad, just say you need to go the pharmacy." But no, despite my exhortations, every day, more enema talk. The upside? In constant motion and vaguely nauseated, I lost three pounds over Thanksgiving!

Next, since God seemed to be busy keeping Mitch Albom's books in the low digits on Amazon, I'm not very flush this year, so in an act of self-preservation and debt- lowering, I've decided to stop coveting my neighbor's wife, which I have always interpreted as a prohibition against envy and over-spending. This has been really hard, as comparing myself to others is one of my most treasured and costly hobbies, I've cultivated it in my spare time, and I'm really good at it. I'm not sure what I will replace this pursuit with yet, so right now I've taken up more self-loathing as a transitional activity, and plan to give low cost, but effusive, notes of gratitude to everyone on my gift list this year.

Lastly, and it pains me to say, I find myself compelled to adhere to the precepts of Jesus, namely: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Which is enervating!

On the Saturday morning of Thanksgiving week, I excused myself from brunch and was standing in line at my local Cingular wireless store -- where I was enduring a two hour wait to replace my cell phone which I had dropped one too many times. Being mobile phoneless had resulted in my turning into a raving lunatic: trying to find a working pay phone in 2006 is something akin to the search for the Holy Grail. Breaking sweat, I had found myself roaming the streets, unmoored, adrift and unreachable. When it was finally my turn at the counter, I was angry and indignant, cursing the employees under my breath. When they told me they couldn't fix my phone, I was positively livid.

I was in the process of haggling with the salesperson when I was stopped in my tracks by the person next to me.

The man, really a teenager, said he was leaving for duty in Iraq and wanted to know if he could keep his phone number on hold during the months of his tour. He was told no, they didn't have a policy that would let him do that. He could put a hold on his account, but his number would change. "Are you sure?" he asked. The salesperson went to check with the manager in the back, returned, and stated in order to do this, he would have to give them 180 days notice. He looked crushed so I said, "I'll pay for his phone." The idea that a teenager would serve his country and come back (hopefully) without his same phone number seemed like too much to ask from a volunteer. He said his name was Randy, I didn't ask his last name because I knew I'd be checking lists of deceased soldiers if I did, and I didn't tell him my whole name because in the Torah, which I now don't believe in, it says the highest form of giving is to give anonymously and I didn't want him to feel indebted to me. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and wished him well.

I later called the Cingular company; it took an hour of waiting on the line to find out they actually do have a policy, but I guess no one bothered to tell their store employees.

Now I can't be sure that if I hadn't given up God I wouldn't have done the same things. But in a country where we can't make certain that Randy can get phone calls from his friends telling him to meet them at the mall so they can get drunk in the parking lot, after he's risked his life for us, well, I had to step up in this most miniscule of ways because I wasn't sure God would be looking out for him.

On Monday after Thanksgiving my parents left town, and my friend with cancer died that day. On her deathbed, her mother said, "You're going to live on through Jesus."

And, amongst her last words, she replied, "That's bullshit, I want my own life."

The next day I woke up exhausted. Relived that my parents had departed, angry that my friend had left this world, resigned that I didn't have enough money to help every Randy, I stumbled downstairs to make my coffee and get my kid ready for school. Even though I didn't have a God to look after me, I was alive and I had a cell phone that worked, and that, at least, was something to be grateful for.


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