A Gratitude Practice or A Gratitude Habit?

With Thanksgiving rolling in tomorrow, the idea of gratitude is at the forefront of all of our minds. Actually, it’s not just Thanksgiving…the idea of practicing gratitude seems to be everywhere lately. Everything from self-help books to morning shows have a headline about gratitude and how to practice it, generally all summed up with a bubbly little quip. And really, there’s good reason- a daily gratitude practice has been linked in study after study to everything from heightened social connectedness to increased happiness to a general feeling of abundance and possibility. (Interested? Try this article or this one or this one or this one...) But there is a catch- it must be truly genuine.

I am an avid journaler and have been ever since keeping a journal was assigned as summer homework for my ninth-grade honors english class. My journaling has ranged from daily pages of scrawled self-involved adolescent angst to sparse entries that give little insight. There are to-do lists and travel plans and more recently sketches and watercolors tucked in between reflections written longhand. A few years ago, I added a spread each month for a gratitude log. I've kept it rather simple, just space for a single line each day to note something I feel particularly grateful for. It’s a great idea and extremely effective at bringing real warmth and appreciation and richness to my life…when I do it meaningfully.

I noticed the other day that my November gratitude log is really line after line of just something that I did that day. It contains lines of “gratitude” that say things like, “met up with friends for lunch- great conversation.” This is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t really reflect what it is that I’m actually grateful for, does it? It doesn’t reach past the superficial and connect me to the real blessings in my life. I might have come closer to the true purpose of the exercise had I written something like, “for having the space and flexibility in my schedule to be able to have lunch with friends,” or “that I have friends who are so insightful and informed and can engage in conversation that broadens and enriches my understanding of the world,” or “that I have such amazing humans as my friends and that there is so much love and laughter in my life.” And even better would be to truly pause long enough to really reflect on those facts and let them sink in as I wrote. That’s a gratitude practice. What I’ve been doing has been a superficial habit.

I’m using the term “habit” loosely here and I realize that part of the reason for developing a gratitude practice is to create a meaningful habit of recognizing the gifts and blessings large and small that are a part of our daily lives. But in this context, I’m using “habit” as the term to describe an automatic action done with minimal thought or attention. That is what my gratitude log has become, really. When I pull out my journal to write in the mornings, I flip to my gratitude spread and quickly fill in the blank before beginning my “real” writing. Ugh. No wonder it hasn’t really resonated with me lately. 

A key piece to an effective gratitude practice is the pausing, the stopping to truly and genuinely feel deeply appreciative for something. There are days in all of our lives where all we might be able to come up with is "that this day is only 24 hours and I can begin again tomorrow," but even that can elicit a warmth and hope that helps combat the feelings of fatigue and isolation and defeat that a really rotten day can leave us with. And really, let’s face it, most of us can come up with something far better if we actually stop long enough to think about it, even on our worst days.

I am in the midst of reading (again) the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and was struck by this passage:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires…The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

Gratitude as a revolutionary act. I just love that so much.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t also be acknowledging and dealing with the other emotions we might be feeling, especially during this time of year that can be so charged and raw for many of us. It is possible to be grateful without downplaying pain or grief or hardship. Gratitude doesn’t require that we see the world through rose-colored blindfolds- as a matter of fact, I would argue that false cheer is the antithesis of genuine gratitude. But allowing for real and sincere and thoughtful gratitude can allow us to feel less alone or overwhelmed in our pain, a gift unto itself.

So I resolve today to stop my gratitude habit and re-commit to a meaningful gratitude practice. I will pause and reflect before I scribble. I will let the gifts of my life truly sink in and connect. I will search out the light even on the very darkest days and allow that light to penetrate the places where I’ve allowed my heart to close. 

I’m so grateful for all of you- for the time you carve out to read my words, for the community you allow me to be a part of, for the beautiful ways large and small you’ve offered me support. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Truly.

A happy and safe Thanksgiving to each of you!

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More from Grand Teton...we had some crazy weather and I just fell in love all over again with these mountains once I saw them shrouded in clouds...

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Coming To Winter

I am writing this morning from the little “office” nook that I carved out of a tiny corner in the upstairs storage space in my in-laws’ home. To my left are the boxes storing Justin and my meager possessions- mostly books, family photos, and the street art we’ve collected on our travels together over the years. To my right is a small window that looks down on the front yard and road below. The last of the windblown autumn leaves are piled along the edges of the driveway and at the base of the gnarled apple tree that dominates the yard. As the sun peeks up over the trees in the distance, its bright morning rays set the crystalline frost on those leaves sparkling like a sea of facet-cut gems. My coffee steams invitingly and I pull the blanket draped over my lap up snug to ward off the morning chill in the room.

This modest little workspace is one of the gifts of this time here in New Hampshire. The quiet space to concentrate and focus, the ability to leave my projects up on my screen and out on my “desk” (really, a sweet little drop-leafed table I found buried in the garage) so that I can pick them up quickly when I return in the morning, the luxury of my enormous desktop screen which makes editing images significantly more efficient. And, most significantly, it allows for a routine to form around my workdays, my creative process.

Routine is one of those words that seems to so often make us cringe. We picture drudgery and mind-numbing predictability and an unrelenting sameness that leaves one day undifferentiated from all of the rest. And, of course, routines can feel that way if we don’t balance them with movement and challenge and spontaneity. But they also have the ability to lend rhythm to our days, to allow our energy to be focused on the work that is most meaningful to us rather than problem-solving the basic logistics surrounding that work. I think often about an article I read years ago about why President Obama wore the same basic suit each day, how meaningful productivity stems from systemization that minimizes what is known as decision fatigue, the exhaustion that results from making too many decisions (this is why a day at the mall is so taxing…it’s not the walking, it’s the overwhelming number of micro-decisions made over the course of the day, from which kiosks/stores/advertisements to pay attention to, to which color/size/fit/etc to purchase). I notice this in my day-to-day life and also on a broader, seasonal level. It’s not only the longer days jam-packed with activity that leave me feeling a bit wrung-out by the end of the summer, it’s also that summer, almost by definition, resists routines of all sorts. Which is liberating and exciting and fills us up in so many ways- I find my creative fodder in those months that seem to be a constant whirlwind of spontaneity and adventure. But when the first signs of fall show themselves, I always feel a certain relief at the prospect of rest and rhythm, and I begin to anticipate taking that creative fodder gathered over those sun-drenched days and processing it, molding it into something more polished, more connective.

In our final few weeks in Reno, the crisp nights and mornings made it clear that our long summer days were wrapping up. Snow began returning to the mountain tops and the edges of the leaves on the elms in our little RV park were beginning to turn more golden than green. As we drove toward Idaho and Wyoming and Montana, it seemed that we jumped seasons on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Sunlit grasses gave way to mountain valleys filled with aspen trees the color of turmeric and then to enormous evergreens whose limbs bowed under the weight of heavy snow. As we moved once again into the valleys, back again were saffron trees and honeyed meadows, only to wake to frozen windows and the blanket of quiet that accompanies gentle snowfall. It was a bit surreal to move so quickly back and forth between fall and winter each day, and then even more so as we left the west behind us to be greeted by the unseasonable warmth of New England’s very extended late summer. 

I have known for a long time that I am a paradox, that who I am is made of seemingly contradictory halves. I have struggled over my life to figure out how to exist between those halves, often swinging all the way to one extreme until the other half was so emaciated and malnourished that I was forced to abandon where I was and swing all the way to the other extreme until the reverse happened and back I went. As I’ve grown older and learned a few lessons in the hardest ways possible, I’ve come to see how this wild swinging to extremes simply doesn’t work, and, maybe more importantly, that it’s simply not necessary. We are surrounded by cycles- day to night and back again, summer to fall to winter to spring, the planting to the harvest to the field that lies fallow. Why do we insist that we are the only exception to these cycles?

We have spent the last 10 months in an “endless summer” of sorts. We left snowy Maine in January and meandered south to settle for a few months into the balmy spring of south Texas before dipping into summer’s heat along the southwestern deserts and then returning to the spring of the high Sierra. We spent our summer there among those golden hills and craggy mountains, the long days and seemingly endless string of sunshine and bluebird skies. We moved and lived in a state of spontaneity and non-routine, filling our pockets to bursting with raw experiences and creative fuel. 

And now, as I look out this little window at the shimmer of frost on the faded leaves, as I cup my hands around this steaming mug and gather myself at this makeshift desk, it is clear that winter has arrived and I can embrace this rhythm, this routine. Just as my summer was sprinkled with small routines and quiet moments, my winter will be sprinkled with unexpected adventures and spontaneous bursts- very few things in life are all-or-nothing as it turns out. But this cycle is important, this coming of winter and its routines, the space it creates to take those raw experiences out of my bursting pockets and look at them carefully, to process and appreciate them fully so that I can see all the ways they add shine to my life, to take all that creative fuel and set it alight to become a warming fire fully realized. By embracing these cycles, I feed my extremes more equally and so allow them to work cooperatively, strengthening one another in ways I never imagined.

We always know that winter is coming (for who can resist a Game of Thrones reference when it presents itself so obviously), but it can be easy to forget what can happen when we allow ourselves to come to winter, to its rest and routines, to its call for quiet and inner listening, to its challenges of cold and stillness. What happens when we step forward and into the cycle instead of resisting it? Let’s find out, let’s come to winter this year and just see where it takes us.

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Nevada Skies

We left Kippetje (did I tell you guys that we finally settled on a true name for our sweet little camper home? Kippetje- or Kippee for short- means “little chicken” in Dutch and it just feels right…now if we could just come up with the right name for our truck…) parked rather forlornly in the sandy side lot of a friend’s home in the desert east of Reno. We tried not to look back at the rearview mirror as we pulled away, Kippee’s light blue sides peeking out beyond the fence accusingly. It just felt so wrong to abandon her like this, to leave her in the hands of near strangers for months under the desert sun. 

I thought momentarily of the scene in the book Love With A Chance Of Drowning where they return to their stored sailboat to find that their canned goods had exploded at some point over the months and that their home was covered in unlivable filth. It was with that scene in mind that I’d scoured the camper for anything that might freeze or attract critters or otherwise not survive storage well, but as we drove away from Kippee, I worried again that I’d missed something, that we would return to her in February to irreparable damage. And the truth is, we just might. Things happen…the temperature variations in the desert and the intermittent sandstorms, the small creatures adept at squeezing through tiny gaps to find shelter, the simple neglect of sitting unused for nearly 5 months…it seems more likely than not that something will be in need of repair when we resume camper life. I have to fight the urge to worry, to call the friends storing her and ask for updates, to attempt to control all outcomes from my perch 3,000 miles away.

But this has been part of my work since we made the choice to sell our home in Maine, possibly my most important work. Learning to let go. Understanding on a visceral level the realities of impermanence and non-attachment. On some level, that understanding resides deep in my gut- one simply cannot survive cancer without having come face-to-face with the unavoidable truth of one’s own intrinsic impermanence. My nature, however, inclines me to hold on tightly-often too tightly- to people, to things, to ideas. It is my lifelong struggle to know when to pry my fingers, one white-knuckled digit at a time, from gripping the people and things I love with all of my might. There is some beauty in that grip, the fierceness with which I love my people often pulls the best parts of me to the surface, allows me to rise to be the friend, partner, sister, daughter that I aspire to be, to truly show up even when it’s hard, to support them even in the face of my own pain or grief. However, I would be lying not to admit that a big part of that grip stems directly out of a place of fear, the innate and primal terror of inevitable loss, and we all know that that sort of grip is stifling and unhealthy and tends not to serve anyone well.

Our choice to sell our home or relinquish most of our possessions is, by no means, the same letting go that is required when we lose a loved one. But I think of it as a step toward learning to make peace with change and the inevitable losses that balance the gains. The minimalism movement talks ad nauseum about the freedom that comes with ridding yourself of possessions. And sure, to some extent that’s obviously true (our journey would certainly be more complicated if we were trying to do this while also dealing with the expense and responsibility of storing our possessions or renting out our home). But I wish more of the folks leading that movement would talk a bit more about how damn hard that can be, how if you’ve already done the work of paring down the clear excesses in your life, letting go of more is truly heart-wrenching. I remember a conversation I had with a “hard-core” minimalist as we were beginning to set aside the minuscule percentage of our belongings to store while we journeyed. I commented that I obviously was going to keep and store my family photos and papers, things like my great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate and the sepia toned images of my grandmother as a wide-eyed girl. My acquaintance made the dismissive remark that I’d get over that, to just scan them in and send the hard copies to the dump. I just stared at her in disbelief for a good long minute before likely saying something snarky about us clearly operating very differently. Some “things” are not really “things” at all. The brittle paper of that marriage certificate is hardly the point. It’s the faded ink of the signatures, the record of how their hands moved across the paper when they were so very young and strong, how the story of these humans I’ve never met leads directly to my own. That little rectangle of paper connects me to them with all of my senses- the feel of that fragile paper and its creases where it was stored in an envelope, the musty scent, the variation in the fountain pen ink, the small water stain in one corner, the ornate typeface that echoes of how things were done before computers or typewriters, the simple ability to touch and smell the very same piece of paper that they did so very many years ago. A scanned version simply wouldn’t do, wouldn’t affect me in the same way. I’m pragmatic, of course, and have scanned them all in, but that is for back-up, for safekeeping, not license to destroy my history. I’m digressing here (it’s hard to resist a tangent about minimalism or history…subjects on whose discourse I could spend days at a time), but the point is that with each step of this journey I have been faced with letting go of things I cherished, everything from furniture that Justin and I built together to my favorite teapot to my plants to the home and community that I just loved. Each time I bargained and tried to work around the letting go, gave the list of reasons that this one thing got to stay. And almost each time, I would eventually circle around to the truth that while I could justify hanging on and that there were good, valid reasons for doing just that, the cost would be too great- either directly interfering with the choice we’d made to journey or edging out other items that were more important to me.

And that has been at the heart of this learning to let go. It’s rarely a choice between a thing/experience/person that I want and one that I don’t. It’s learning to choose between the many things that are wonderful, the many things that I want with all my heart, of choosing what takes priority. I chose to let go of our home entirely and experience the uncertainty and fear and “all in” mentality of traveling without that safety net to return to. I miss it often, and the loss strikes me unexpectedly sometimes in such a punch-in-the-gut sort of way. But we would not have had the year that we’ve had nor the future we’re planning if we hadn’t let go and I can’t bring myself to regret the choice. We could have rented a large storage unit to hold all of our belongings while we traveled and I know that when we next make a more permanent home, I will be cursing having let go of some of what we will buy again. But even beyond the freedom from the financial burden that storage would have entailed, I grew tremendously from prying that death grip from my belongings and fully grasping the space it allowed for us to have this time be a true new beginning, to embark on a new era in our lives unencumbered by the trappings of the last one. 

As we drove away from Kippetje and left her well-being in hands not our own, my inherent resistance both amused and bemused me. How many times and how many ways must I learn the same lessons? We do what we can, we prepare and we do our work and we control the controllables. And at some point, things change or the unexpected happens or some factor that we hadn’t considered comes into play, and we get outcomes different from what we’d hoped or planned for. There is simply no escaping. Nothing is permanent. Why is it so impossible to fully grasp this? Not people, not belongings, not situations, not who we are or what is important to us. If we arrive at our friends’ house in February to find some kind of major issue with Kippee, well...we’ll figure it out. The me of just a few short years ago would never have been able to say that and really mean it. But after a year and a half of practice at letting go of all kinds of things I thought I couldn’t live without (my own shower, clear daily structure, workspace, etc), I recognize that this is just the truth of life in general. Prepare as best we can, make the best choices we can with the information we have, and then figure it out when things go awry. I will still worry for our little home here and there, but I can see ever more clearly how worry often creates a barrier that prevents me from fully engaging where I actually am. If I’m worrying about Kippee, then I’m mentally somewhere in Nevada expending energy to deal with things that haven’t actually come to pass, existing in some bizarre fantasyland, rather than being right here where I am dealing with what is actually happening around me, expending energy on the goals and projects and people that are real.

I suspect this won’t be the last time I dive into this work of letting go. Hell, it’s likely not the last time today that I work on it. And that’s okay, really. This is the work of life, after all, this learning how to love and be loved, how to stretch ourselves, how to set aside our egos and still make good use of our gifts, how to balance our lives in relationship to others, how to fight when a fight is what’s called for, how to release when it’s time to let go. It’s work that we must come back to over and over, circle around it to see all of the angles, crack ourselves open as we search for honesty and truth under layers of story and fear and vulnerability. It’s real work, true work. 

And so we turned away from Kippetje, from the rearview mirror for a bit, and looked out at the road before us, at the two lanes winding east under broad blue skies. Nevada isn’t a good place to hide. There’s no cover on those golden hills, nowhere to tuck away behind self-deception or doubt. As we aimed the truck toward Idaho and set the cruise control too fast, the cotton clouds rolled up into formation and we rolled the windows down, allowing that desert wind to set our hair flying as our outstretched hands rode the currents.

Forward, friends, under these Nevada skies.

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Home...Sort Of

We are home…sort of. We arrived in New Hampshire a few days ago and getting settled has been an utter whirlwind. We are staying with Justin’s parents, who have so generously opened their home to us and allowed our work routines and silly mutt and fragmented belongings to disrupt their laid-back retired lives. For the next three months, Justin’s childhood bedroom, the streets along which he learned to drive, the towns and highways and mountains of New England, will be our home once again.

It feels so odd in so many ways to be here. Our camper, home these last ten months on the road, feels far away as does the life we were leading up until crossing back to the eastern side of the grand ol’ Mississippi. Were we really in Wyoming just two short weeks ago? Did we really call the Sierra home for the last four months? Or have we been here in New England all along, having dreamt the whole adventure? Thankfully, there are threads that connect us back…a sweet and funny postcard from our dear friend Geoff (remember him from this trip?), a truck window full of stickers from the twenty national parks and monuments we’ve visited since January, journals brimming with sketches and notes from moments tucked in among towering trees or flowing water, hundreds upon hundreds of images shot along the way. And of course, the onslaught of cherished memories…the ways our lives have been touched irrevocably by the people we’ve met, the grandeur we’ve stood in the midst of. 

There are things about life on the road and in the camper that have been truly challenging for me, things I’ve touched upon but want to share more deeply here in the next months, because it’s important to recognize that travel and road life and tiny-space living is not all sunshine and roses (or mountaintops and micro-brew!), that the daily reality is not as glamorous as people often imagine. In just these few days of being in a real house (complete with a bathroom I don’t have to walk outside for, a shower I don’t have to wear flip-flops in, AN OVEN!), I am already relishing the luxuries large and small afforded by our current situation (and I haven’t even begun to soak in the fall leaves and Currier-& Ives-esque farm stands and apple-picking and town squares that come along with a New England autumn). I am eager to make the most of this time, these luxuries, and my gratitude is beyond words. 

But we’re not done yet. We will make the most of this lovely time here, the access to family and friends, to the ways home can make you feel, the creative spark that can come when you find a place of rest amidst the movement. But we’ve only begun our love affair with the west, with the serrated skylines of mountains we are only just beginning to know, with the wide seemingly-empty spaces between ranges. After years of promising ourselves more time outdoors, we have finally made good on it…over three full months of “vacation” time outside with so many more days enjoying the trails and rivers and mountains around where we’ve lived. We've quite likely had more time outdoors since January than we’ve had over the last 13 years together combined. That’s something.

So we’re home. Home in Justin’s childhood haven. Home in a region of the country that we truly love. Home to seasons we’ve missed. Home to people we’ve ached for. But we’ve left another home on the other side of the country. And another region we love. And other people we ache for. 

So we’re home…sort of. And that’s an adventure all on its own.

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I have just begun the process of sorting and editing the nearly 2000 images I shot on this last trip…I cannot wait to share them with you! Here’s the tiniest peek in the meantime...

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Nearly There

We have been on the road for weeks now and our journey east is nearly finished. I have so much to share, so much to tell you and show you from this time on the road. But bear with me a bit longer as I savor the last of this unplugged time...when next I write, it will be from New Hampshire and I promise a few peeks from Montana and Wyoming and Idaho and South Dakota, from paradise in autumn.

In the meantime, a few final images from our last trip. Mount Rainier National Park is one of my favorite places on earth and we spent a few days simply being there, simply savoring it's enormous trees and grand beauty of a mountain...

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Smoke and Sea

Crater Lake has been on Justin's bucket list for as far back as I can remember and it was with real eagerness that we pointed the truck toward that Cascadian treasure from Redwoods. We began noticing the smoke about an hour out and by the time we reached the park, it was clear that we were deep in wildfire country.

Our hopes still high, we made our way to the visitor center, but had them dashed officially when the ranger there recommended we watch the video as "it's likely to be the only sight of the Lake you get this week." Womp womp. 

Stubborn, we pressed on, and this was indeed the sole view of the Lake we managed:

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It was clearly time to regroup.

So we scrapped our plans to head into Bend and made our way to the coast instead. Oregon is famous for its scenic coast and it certainly did not disappoint. It wasn't the Oregon we'd planned, but it was a gift all the same. From the stunning Heceta Head lighthouse, to the best trail run I've had in ages at Cape Perpetua, to the famed Cannon Beach "haystack" at sunset, we were surprised and delighted at every turn and could hardly be sad that our original plan got derailed. Perhaps our sole regret is not veering back inland to the Columbia River Gorge...Justin has never seen it and less than a week after our passing by, it was set on fire by the carelessness (maliciousness?) of humans and more than 35,000 acres burned. It's a tragic loss to say the very least.

But we lingered on the coast, marveling at the way the mountains rose straight out of the sea, how the hemlocks towered and the sword fern grew tall and lush and thick. We inched our way north towards Washington and reveled in the time together amidst such beauty.

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