I wasn’t going to write a gratitude list this year. I’m too busy, too many important things to do, just no time. But, I have learned and re-learned a thousand times that the things I hear myself saying I don’t have time for are sometimes the most important things I need to make time for. Sometimes I don’t have time because I am keeping myself busy so I don’t have to face the hard things.
This has been a tough year. They happen from time to time. This has not, by far, been the hardest year of my life. But it’s not been one where things to be grateful for jump immediately to mind.
The loss of my dear friend, G, tops the list of things that prevent me from wanting to think about gratitude. But, it is actually G who inspires this exercise for me this year. In fact, very shortly before she was suddenly and shockingly taken from us, she decided would create a gratitude blog. We talked many times about the importance of developing a gratitude practice. And we discussed the biggest challenge of practicing gratitude: being grateful for the things that hurt the most.
I don’t know how to be grateful for the loss of someone I love. I can’t even get close enough to the loss to really look at it. Often, in the few quiet moments that happen between sliding into bed and sleep, it occurs to me that this latest wound needs the dressing changed. When I manage to get close to attending to it, the smell turns my stomach. I cannot find the courage to rip off the tape. I turn into a simpering fool, paralyzed by the fear of gangrenous, maggot-infested flesh that surely lies beneath the neglected bandage.
I suspect this wound is really just a reopening of an age-old wound that has never formed a scar. It is the pain of loss.
The past year was what seemed like a long series of losses, some more paralyzing than others: the loss of my canine companion; the loss of belief in myself when I wasn’t able to help my husband with his business; the loss of my own identity in taking time off from my corporate career; the loss of income; the loss of financial security for me and my small family; the loss of faith in good health and self-determination when my 70 year-old yoga instructor (who also does triathlons’s and century bike rides) had hernia surgery that resulted in a near-death struggle for survival over several months; the partial and temporary loss of my own mind from a concussion from a biking accident; the loss of my amateur status in photography that brought with it business management overhead that I wasn’t fully prepared for; the loss of feeling like we lived in a safe community when a shooting that reached international news occurred just a couple miles down the road; the loss of my freedom when my leave of absence ended; the loss of my Friday morning yoga class that I’ve depended on for sanity for nearly 4 years; the loss of easy access to our first friends in Chattanooga when they decided to move to Florida; the loss of yet another pillar in my support network when another friend moved to D.C.; the list goes on. Of course, the unexpected and difficult to understand death of my closest friend was by far the most staggering loss this year. It is still not real to me even though I sit on her couch as I write this.
See how easy it is for me to feel sorry for myself? Even the decision to shoot professionally, something I’ve worked towards for many years, has become a loss. The sense of loss can be every bit as infectious as a good laugh.
This is, in a nutshell, why my gratitude list must be a priority for me. And why it needs to be a daily practice, not an annual one.
In fact, Forbes listed 7 positive benefits of gratitude different studies have demonstrated ranging from improved physical health to improved sleep in an article run last year for Thanksgiving. You can read the article here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/
In the end, we develop habits. As Charles Reade is oft paraphrased (this is the version I first saw on an elementary school cafeteria wall in 2002):
Mind your thoughts for they become your words;
Mind your words for they become your actions;
Mind your actions for they become your habits;
Mind your habits for they become your character;
Mind your character for it becomes your destiny.
Our brains are relatively easy to train into patterns of thought. If we take in our experiences and make them losses, they are losses. But we can just as easily learn to take in these same experiences as reasons for gratitude. The point is to choose to create a destiny that is not full of regret and and an overwhelming sense of loss.
And so, in honor of G, I make my list this evening. I am grateful for:
- Having loved so dearly that the loss knocked me down, stopped my heart, filled me with endless longing and yet having found the courage to love so dearly again.
- Having learned (and continuing to learn) from wise friends who come with many points of view and experiences.
- Having had a glimpse of what dementia feels like so that I may be more compassionate, patient, and empathetic with those who suffer from any form of mental confusion.
- Experiencing the strength and grace of practicing yoga and knowing that I can remain flexible and strong for decades to come.
- Having met caring people who have welcomed me into their lives in both big and small ways and made me feel like I am part of a community–both locally and afar.
- Having taken the risk and time to explore the possibility of what my husband and I could and could not do together rather than wondering what might have been.
- The opportunity to return to a job that gives me a sense of security and provides for my (even smaller) family.
- The ability to continue to pursue photography and to push my limits in a part of my brain that isn’t always exercised.
- Having been published in a major magazine.
- Being inspired to start the Serious Women series which has re-awakened my creative spirit as well as inspired me in new ways as I learned more about the women I was shooting.
- My iPhone and Facebook, which make it possible to incorporate keeping in touch with distant friends in fractions of minutes in even the busiest of days.
- For being able to see my family for important events in their lives as well as ordinary visits even though we are geographically dispersed.
- For Euchre.
- And, for my friends in Chattanooga who haven’t abandoned me even though I have sorely neglected them.
- I am grateful for having had 3 years with my boy, Tisen. 3 years during which I was the star of every day for him and that reminded me to try to be the person my dog believed me to be (as the bumper sticker goes).
- I am grateful for having been able to ease Tisen out of the world gently. And for a vet who was willing to come in for this somber purpose on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. For a husband who is the kind of man who cried shamelessly over the loss of a dog who loved me like no one else and who often guarded me jealously—even from the same husband who was there for him to the very end.
- I am grateful that G remained a central part of my life even after we moved to Chattanooga. I am grateful that we were both able to use technology to keep in touch, often in random and hilarious ways—that we were able to bridge space and time.
- I am grateful that G inspired me to write this list (and the many, many other ways in which she continues to inspire me) and that I took the time to write it. I am grateful that my life is so full of lessons, opportunities, love, and surprises. I am grateful that I continue to muddle my way through the curve balls.
- I am grateful for maggots—they can cleanse wounds thoroughly and without disgust.
“If you want to be happy, notice that you are.” -Georgia Crosby, 1957-2015