Gratitude Is Like a Giddy Toddler
(from Within My Illusions)
Have you ever seen something so beautiful
that you almost couldn’t stand it?
Like it was a heroic effort
to contain yourself,
to refrain from jumping
up and down and shouting
like a giddy toddler
who just tasted ice cream
for the first time,
and wants to proclaim to everyone
how magnificent it was?
The tips of the clouds at the edge
of the horizon glowed hot pink
as their condensed matter caught the light
of the setting sun below.
Billowing waves rolled toward me,
their gentle undulations punctuated
by jagged peaks and land lakes
that formed in openings
where the ground was visible
twenty thousand feet below.
The young man in the row ahead of me
angled his phone at the window
to take a picture.
And I felt relieved
that I was not the only one
I thought about this poem this past week as I drove back from an errand in a small Texas town about an hour away from where I live. I rounded a corner on a country road, singing the Indigo Girls at the top of my lungs, and caught sight of a large swath of sky, its cloud-dappled veil backlit by the afternoon sun. I was anxious to get home, but I just had to stop to take a picture, which I sent to a friend. She responded, "It’s funny that we never see these skies from the busy roads." A few hours later, she wrote again to say that she had been driving later in the day and did see the clouds, even on the busy city highway. “Thank you for drawing my attention to the skies!” This short video on gratitude by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg and narrated by David Steindl-Rast reminds me that awe and wonder are possible when I'm open enough and when I slow down enough to pay attention to the details. It's also a reminder that gratitude is something that can be cultivated through practice. I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal since 2007. It started as an experiment, a sort of “fake it ‘til you make it” challenge to myself during a low time in my life when I felt disconnected from myself and from hope. I bought a small notebook and committed to writing in it every evening before bed. My goal was to write five things for which I was grateful. The practice gave me a chance to scan through my day and (perhaps) notice a few bright spots. Sometimes the list flowed easily; sometimes it was a struggle, and all I could come up with was that I was grateful that the day was over and it was time for sleep. As time went on, my lists tended to include items you might consider to be pretty mundane, like coffee, a few minutes of unexpected quiet time (I had a young child), a good meal, helpful people, and the ever-changing sky. After a few weeks, I started making mental notes throughout the day of things I wanted to include in the journal that night. In other words, I was noticing things that I appreciated in real time. The practice didn’t feel as forced as it did in the beginning. I began to notice the way my body felt lighter and more relaxed as I shifted my attention from worry and stress to appreciation and gratitude. I experienced synchronicities that made me smile and moments that felt like magic. Fifteen years into the practice, it feels as essential as ever. My negative mind will quickly take over if I let it. My gratitude practice helps me come back to a center point that reminds me of what I now consider to be simple truths: that the mere fact of existence is so improbable it must be treasured; that, in the grand scheme of things, I (and you and all) am both imperceptible and profoundly magnificent; that the experience of aliveness is one that demands both deep reverence and light-hearted playfulness.
Over and over, I come back to words written by Mary Oliver in her book Long Life: “What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?” Her questions challenge me to strive to live more boldly in alignment with both a sense of purpose and humility. For a sweet way to play with gratitude, check out this gratitude zine created by writer Austin Kleon. You can print it out and fold it into a little booklet to color and write in. Or, you might simply join me by making lists in a notebook or on your phone (find the time of day or night that works for you).
Wishing you moments of wonder and appreciation, and thank you for being the gift that you are.
With love, Jennifer