There are people who like to decorate their homes with inspirational words, and then there are people who don’t. I fall into the latter category, and one November four years ago I found out that that my daughter does, too. We were at a preschool event making a craft project—a pumpkin made of a roll of toilet paper wrapped in fabric. The stem was a crumpled piece of kraft paper with a little tag to attach to it. At first, my daughter and I excelled at the task. We chose a square of fabric from the selection laid out by the teachers, fluffed up the TP as directed, wrapped the fabric around it, and stuffed the raw edges into the toilet paper tube. It was lopsided, but that only made it more life-like, in my opinion. We put in the stem. It was a passable representation of a gourd, and I was proud. Except—I picked up the tag. We were supposed to write something on it. And we hadn’t.
My daughter and I looked at the empty slip of paper blankly. How, exactly, were we supposed to label our creation? I furtively listened in on the other mothers and children for ideas. “What should we write on our tag, Laken?” one mother asked, her voice pitching a little higher than I thought was warranted. “Thankful!” was the earnest reply. I winced. “What do you want on your tag, Delaware?” I heard from someone else. “Blessed!” the little voice piped in, with the sort of squealy excitement that only the immediate promise of sugar can incite in my kids. This was not improving. Well, at least we were letting the children decide what to write. I was off the hook when it came to coming up with a word that encompassed all of my emotions about the fall season, Thanksgiving, my family, my life, and how I felt about spending the evening shaping toilet paper into a gourd. I’d just let the four-year-old do it.
I turned back to my daughter. “What should we write on the tag?” I asked tentatively, almost shyly, then waited nervously for her reply. This was a test for both of us, but I didn’t know what the passing answer looked like. “Crap” was probably not it. “Sucks” was probably not it. But I couldn’t help but feel like, for us, “Blessed” wasn’t quite it either. My daughter looked at me disdainfully. “Pumpkin,” she said with great boredom, as if it were obvious. I made her write it even though she was getting antsy, dictating the spelling to her. I didn’t want it to be in my handwriting and have someone think I was the smartass that came up with it.
It was the obvious answer, though. Just call the thing what it is—or what it was supposed to represent. I liked our obviously-a-pumpkin; I was proud of its no-nonsense demeanor and lack of airs. I don’t know why I was so put off by the idea of using such lovely positive words like thankful or blessed, except in my mind what they represented was not true positive sentiment but a sort of exhibitionist gratitude that I couldn’t abide. “Look at me!” those words seemed to say, “We have it all! You can tell by the flowery script! And we know it! But we’re not showing off, we’re just being publicly grateful for our blessings, which are better than yours because we deserve it. But you should be grateful, too, because you definitely have enough by any standard and a hell of a lot more than a good percentage of the world’s human population. Shame on you—where are your gratitude words?” Of course, the words didn’t say this. There was nothing within their definitions or even their context having anything to do with this sort of exhibitionism or scolding. But my interpretation of them was defined by my own flaws of materialism and judgement and by my own shame both in all that I had and in all that I didn’t.
In the end, “Hypocritical” may have been the best word for me to write on that pumpkin tag. Because though I found our “obvious” answer to be the most direct one, in reality, it wasn’t. That pumpkin was not really a pumpkin any more than it was thankful or blessed. It was a roll of toilet paper precariously wrapped in fabric, and despite my efforts to preserve it, it ended up returning to its original elements—square of fabric, bits of paper, fluffed up TP—within a year. But by labeling it as “pumpkin,” we threw the idea out into the universe that that’s what it was, and while it sat proudly on the mantel we were able to suspend reality enough to perceive it not just as a physical representation of a pumpkin, but as everything we’d been culturally conditioned to believe a pumpkin symbolized—bounty, and hope, and even love. Which I guess is what the gratitude words are about, too. Throwing the blessedness and the thankfulness out into the universe and hoping they’ll come right back to you. Staring them down day after day until eventually you perceive them to be true.
Still, I prefer no words in my décor. It’s hard enough to find the right words to say or put on a screen or page—to have the added task of finding one that isn’t too full of cultural or personal baggage to emblazon across a wall, or a mantel, or a throw pillow is, for me, too much. I admit, when I think the word “gratitude,” I still throw up a little in my mouth. But when I watch my kids jumping into a pile of crunchy leaves surrounded by golden trees and the great vastness of the blue sky, and the sun—the sun!—warms the tired skin of my face, it is an astonishingly mundane thing—a thing that refuses to be captured by a word. I could call it “thankfulness” or “blessed” or I could call it “gratitude,” but all of these words are simultaneously too abstract and not abstract enough to cover it. So I call it nothing. I just feel it. Golden, round, warm, and full of the seeds of the unknown.