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Linda Novick O'Keefe Headshot

Grace

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Thanksgiving: a favorite holiday filled with family, friends and amazing food. But is there any parent who doesn't find planning for it the weensiest bit stressful? All those tables laden with delicious baked goods can turn the meal into a whirl of worry if one of your kids has a nut allergy. For others, Thanksgiving can be a time when it's obvious that someone is missing: a deceased grandparent, a family member serving overseas, a loved one suffering chronic illness. Despite the joys, holidays have a way of opening us up at the seams.

And even under the happiest circumstances, those who love cooking together face the challenge of pleasing younger people and palates. Since my husband is one of 15 kids, our holiday can involve meal planning for 32 adults and 35 children! I used to dream about baking and cooking alongside my husband, grooving to some great tunes, trying our best to recreate earmarked recipes from Food and Wine magazine. I'm still dreaming about it, because now, with two kids and the multi-tasking needed just to get dinner on the table without burning something or forgetting a key ingredient, complex new dishes are on indefinite hold. Even if my parents had the energy to watch my wild ones nonstop while Nick and I cooked, would everyone eat the exotic fruits of our labors? Probably not. Holiday foods have to be crowd-pleasers for wildly varying tastes.

So how can we maximize the pleasures of the upcoming holiday season, despite these practical hurdles?

Well, I know we hear this all the time, but... we really do need to slow down and go a bit easier on ourselves, especially at this time of year. Our days in the northern hemisphere are shortening; our animal bodies want to hibernate. Human sleep and waking cycles are controlled by light; when there's less daylight, many of us feel dramatically more sluggish. The shift to Daylight Saving Time in early November can also sap our resources. For some, this shortened light cycle is enough to trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The symptoms often begin in late autumn, and can include daytime sleepiness and increased appetite as well as inability to concentrate. The National Institute of Mental Health website notes that many people in Northern latitudes, especially young women, are affected by SAD.

SAD sufferers, as well as those of us who just feel slower in the cold months, will appreciate a curious article from a 1906 issue of the New York Times. The story details how Russian peasants in remote rural areas would take to their beds for days at a time to lessen the effects of hunger. In effect, these people were putting their bodies into a mild form of hibernation, slowing their own metabolism down to conserve energy. That desire to crawl under the covers and let winter pass over is a common one among my friends here in Chicago, I know!

True, most of us can't shift gears and spend 18 hours a day in bed from November through April. But we can help our bodies find their natural balance through eating healthfully and making time for meditation. The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines is currently funding research on meditation's ability to relieve stress in caregivers, reduce hot flashes in menopausal women, relieve chronic back pain and alleviate asthma symptoms.

Yoga is a great way to combine meditation with physical activity, another thing many of us find harder to fit in when we lose the longer daylight hours. Whether you opt for a seriously heart-pounding hot yoga class or a gentle stretching session in the privacy of your home, the health benefits range from better sleep at night to improved concentration at work. In fact, a number of corporations are using downward dog to boost the bottom line: HBO, AT&T and Pepsico are just a few of the companies that have invested in onsite wellness programs featuring yoga classes, reports a recent article in Yoga Journal.

One other benefit of a regular winter activity like yoga is that it reminds us that we need to eat healthful meals and snacks. On a hectic day, it sometimes seems impossible to sit down for 20 minutes to enjoy a delicious salad and some fruit. It's not that I'm not hungry, but it seems like I could answer 10 emails or get five other small things done in that time. We've created a society in which we often feel guilty for taking time away from work to eat a meal. But I know if I'm going to a late-evening yoga class after the kids are in bed, there's no question: I need those well-chosen carbs and proteins.

Another thing I find helpful in these darker months is a little internal light in the form of meditative reading. A couple weeks ago, I started Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening. Its subtitle, "Having the Life You Want by Being Present in the Life You Have," sums up the author's philosophy concisely. Happiness is about seeing what's there and taking time to cherish it. The book's daily meditations offer suggestions about how to carry a state of inner peace out into the world around us. Here's one of my favorite passages:

"I now believe it is important that we sing while pregnant with our dreams and troubles and want of truth and love. Important that we attend our little seed of spirit with the same care we would offer an unborn life forming within us. Essential that we care for our unique body as a carrier of life magically forming within us as we make it through our days."

As I read each of these meditations, I do feel another layer of stress washing away. I come a little closer to finding what I think of as a point of inner grace.

This is the same tranquility I also find in moments when I'm really present with my kids and family. These moments are often at mealtimes, after the bustle of getting together and bringing food to the table has settled down. There we are, enjoying time and tastes together. Of course, we may not yet be ready to prepare an ornate Food and Wine-style spread! But savoring even a simple meal we've prepared is special. We have a bit of respite in each other's company to savor, to give thanks for the good food and for the earth that nourishes us, as well as for the farmers and farm laborers (often underpaid and invisible) upon whom we all depend.

Which brings me back to thinking of the upcoming holidays. That's what's best about this time of year: If we can redirect our energies away from the frenzy and be a little more grateful of our own health and capacities, we can also be better at offering thanks to others. In these shortening days, we reflect on our families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. We also try to be mindful about the strangers through whose hands our food has passed to reach us, and we feel a connection to them all. In my own circle, I am wishing for pennies from heaven for those who are missing someone this holiday; for worry-free dinners for those with allergies; and for self-love for anyone who might be alone at the table. Then I look at my husband and at the two small humans we made together, and I say my own inner words of grace.

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