Remembering Gratitude

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

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A Missing Dog (or, Gratitude, Part II)

I feel bad that I only made it through 3 things I am grateful for in last week’s post.  Last Monday night, I found myself thinking about this while I was sitting in a running mini-van with the brights on, pointed down railroad tracks.

I watched my husband disappear from sight with my window cracked in spite of the cold, listening in case he was attacked.  He headed beyond the reach of the headlights to an abandoned homeless camp in search of an abandoned dog.

A homeless couple we often see in the park had recently disappeared.  Supposedly, the man was arrested and the woman found a job and is living in a motel.  Rumor has it they left their dog behind.

With temperatures dropping into the low 20’s and arctic winds making it feel like the teens, my husband was determined to rescue this dog.  It was his second of 3 trips down the railroad tracks–so far, no sign of the dog.

How can I not feel gratitude for having the kind of man in my life who is both brave enough and compassionate enough to wander into potential danger to save the life of a dog?

I should mention that this couple has always seemed both lucid and happy.  We are under the impression they have chosen a homeless life for their own reasons and that they are capable of choosing a different course.  The dog, however, has no choice.

And so, I sat in the van on that cold night poignantly aware that I have much to be thankful for:  a reliable vehicle kicking out hot air; my own cuddly dog, healthy and happy beside me; a husband both strong and gentle; a hot meal to return home to; a comfortable bed to sleep in; hot running water; the list goes on and on.

But in the end, it’s the people who have been part of my life and/or who are part of my life now that I am the most grateful for (and yes, I include animals when I say “people”).  While mountains, clouds, and oceans provide much needed respite from time to time, it’s the people that keep me going day in and day out.

From passing acquaintances that make me laugh in the middle of a tense moment to friends who know me well enough to ask the most pertinent questions that allow me to see a situation in a new way, I don’t know what life would be without all of them.  Even the strangers who fail to acknowledge my “hello” remind me that I have been there, making me feel connected to them in an odd sort of way.

The people who ultimately made all of this gratitude possible are, of course, my parents.  I am grateful they were flawed human beings who made remarkable parents.  Of course, I didn’t think they were remarkable when I was growing up.  I’m also grateful that perspective changes.  🙂

Gratitude

“. . . in this huge mound of data there was also story after story of men and women who were living these amazing and inspiring lives.  I heard stories about the power of embracing imperfection and vulnerability.  I learned about the inextricable connection between joy and gratitude. . .”

“Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

And so, in honor of what may be the most important holiday of all, allow me to practice:

I am grateful for the mountains.  I have stood on top of Mauna Kea and watched the sunset from above the clouds.  I have hiked the ridges of the Canadian rockies amongst the Big Horn sheep.  I have climbed Half Dome and slept on Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite.  I have crossed the Continental Divide, and skied more mountains than I can remember.  I have hiked 14,000 feet up Mt. Albert, called in a mule deer with the scent of blueberry pancakes in the San Juans, watched hoarfrost form on the Blue Ridge, and watched mist rising off the Smokies.

The mountains bring me home.  They remind me my feet are on the ground–and that they can take me to amazing places.  The mountains teach me I am small and my problems smaller.  They fill me with calm and inspire me with wonder.  I am grateful for the mountains.

I am grateful for the trees.  I have gulped their oxygen in moments of panic as well as intense exertion.  I have sat silently and listened to their songs.  I have climbed within their swaying arms, held high and safe above the ground.  I have showered under them, swung from them, curled up in their shade for an afternoon nap, and frolicked in their brilliant leaves.  I have witnessed their generosity–Pileated Woodpeckers tucked into a cavity, baby trees suckling on the corpse of a former giant, Bloodroot springing from the rich nutrients of rotting leaves.  Trees connect me to the air and root me to the earth.  They remind me that great strength sometimes comes from flexibility and patience.  I am grateful for the trees.

I am grateful for the oceans.  I have bobbed along the surface in a quiet cove, peering at the underwater marvels through a snorkel mask.  I have floated for miles with the tide on a flimsy blow-up raft, I have kayaked with green sea turtles and swum with wild dolphins just by chance.  I have watched the sun sink into its nightly bath and watched it rise from the sea, fresh and new again.  I have eaten from the bounty of life the sea provides.  The ocean buoys me up, pushing me to the surface, reminding me I can float.  It soothes me with its endless rhythm and delights me with its underwater surprises.  I am grateful for the oceans.

 

Another Year

Don't know this one's name, but I like it--and the dew covered spider web

Don’t know this one’s name, but I like it–and the dew covered spider web

If New Year’s isn’t enough of a reminder that another year has passed, my birthday comes as a second reminder that time is flying.

I’d like to think that means I’m having fun.  And, I suppose I am.  But as I find myself crossing over the mid-point between 40 and 50, my breath catches in my throat as I choke back the shock.  How exactly did that happen?

A youthful wood ear

A youthful wood ear

Immediately, I start to list the endless list of things I haven’t done that I was sure I would have done long before now.  But I take a deep breath and exhale slowly.  I tell myself, “I am enough.”  I think that’s my new mantra.

Shelf-forming fungus against a bed of moss

Shelf-forming fungus against a bed of moss

So, if I am enough and my life is enough, what has my life been about?  In a word, I’d have to say if you take my life and add it all up, it comes to a work in progress.  And that’s enough.

Fungus or sculpture?

Fungus or sculpture?

In the interest of celebrating, here are random moments/experiences from my life I am grateful for:

  • Climbing trees and clinging to the branches while the tree swayed in the wind.
  • Swinging so high the swing would go above the top bar and then jerk on its way back down.
  • The warm feeling of sharing a smile.
  • Watching my nephews grow into amazing young men.
  • Friends.  Especially friends who know me and remind me my flawed and imperfect self is enough.
  • Every dog I have ever known and especially those I have shared a lifetime in dog years with.
  • The moments when I managed, in spite of the improbability, to do the exact right thing to connect with someone in way that left us both feeling like we mattered.
  • Fireflies and the childhood delight of watching them flash their lights against my skin just before floating off, back into the night.
  • Having parents who supported me when I took chances and helped nurse me back to health when the odds didn’t go my way.
  • Having followed my teenage dream of working with horses far enough to have no regrets over giving it up.
  • The day I knew, absolutely knew without a doubt, my husband loved me.
  • The feeling of being a millionaire when I bought my first piece of real furniture even though it was a damaged floor sample.
  • Soaring downhill on my bike with no hands, fingers spread wide to catch the wind whistling between them.
  • The foresight and caring of a friend who got me to the hospital in time to hold my mother’s hand while she died.
  • Standing on top of Half Dome feeling like I had just conquered the world.
  • Bad boyfriends without whom I couldn’t have appreciated good ones.
  • Having a father who could talk me through disassembling a garbage disposal to remove a clog and reassembling it over the phone.
  • The day I realized women should be allies, not enemies.
  • Every time my husband plays one of his songs for me.
A wood ear looking like it's getting ready to take a walk

A wood ear looking like it’s getting ready to take a walk

 

This is what happens when you live with too many regrets

This is what happens when you live with too many regrets

 

Dogs and Nomads

It was a big day for Tisen.  We drove to Atlanta last night and stayed in a La Quinta (did you know they allowed dogs for free?).  Pat hung out with Tisen until my work meetings were over and I could take the rest of my meetings from the car while he drove us back home.

Tisen did not seem like he felt well from about an hour into the drive to Atlanta until we returned home today.  He was clearly nervous about traveling.

After returning home, we took Tisen with us to McKamey Animal Center to officially adopt him.  Nearly every staff member on duty came to see Tisen and to thank us for adopting him.  I’m not sure why they were thanking us–we are so grateful to them for saving him.

I have spent much of the evening with eyes brimming with tears, overwhelmed with gratitude.  Gratitude for the people who saved Tisen.  Gratitude for Tisen himself.  Gratitude that my sister-in-law fosters cats (which gave me the ides to foster dogs).  Gratitude that Anna introduced us to Tisen.  Gratitude that Tisen picked us as much as we picked him.

While we are at the shelter, Tisen flirts with a boxer/bulldog mix named Rosie through a glass door.  She has the opposite eye patch from him and they seem like they were made for each other.  She is so ridiculously cute, we are suddenly tempted to bring home a friend for Tisen.  But, when we do the “meet and greet” to see how they get along, Tisen will not allow Rosie to get any affection from any human in the room.  When someone starts to pet her, he dives between human and Rosie, making growly noises.  We decide Tisen wants to be an only dog, which is probably for the best.

After another stop at PetsMart for a couple of items we forgot last trip (which results in the purchase of yet another squeaky toy), we return home.  I cuddle Tisen on the couch.  He lays across my lap and sighs like life just doesn’t get any better.  As I sit here petting him, I think he might be right.

But, I am trying to write my blog.  Tisen seems to want to be between me and my laptop.  I tease him that he is both helping me write my blog by providing a subject and preventing me from writing my blog by physically interfering.  He doesn’t seem to get the joke, but he sighs again and readjusts, hoping for a belly rub.

As I contemplate the long-term commitment we have just made, I realize I might have to change my domain name.  We came to Chattanooga thinking we would live here 6-12 months and then move on to a new area.  Instead, we have extended our lease on our apartment, committed to lease a manufacturing space for 3 years, and taken in a dog.  So much for being nomads!