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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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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Arrived

We arrived in Reno last night after driving for hours with the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains hugging our left side. They are glorious things to behold, those mountains, and between that view and the sound of the Truckee River that I can hear from where I sit writing this morning, I have high hopes for our time tucked in here on the California-Nevada line.

We’ve been on the road for the last couple of weeks, wandering through wide open spaces devoid of much human noise. It’s been utterly lovely to have “No Service” show up on my phone when I reach for it automatically, a gentle reminder to put it down, to look out my window at that big sky, to engage in conversation or companionable silence without distraction. 

In several places along our drive, road signs admonished us to turn off our air conditioning lest we overheat and we realized just how long it had been since we’d rolled our windows down and thrown our arms out into the wind while sliding along two-lane highways at breakneck speeds. How many ways must I learn that insulated comfort is rarely the best path?

I shot hundreds of photos and I will share many of them here over the next few weeks. But I also put my camera down sometimes. There was a night in Big Bend when we’d gone out to photograph the stars in that dark sky where so little man-made light interferes, only to remember that we were mere days from the full-moon, it’s celestial light dimming the stars. So I packed up my camera and instead we stood still in the middle of the road, alone and silent. We looked out over a teeming desert landscape, glowing in the moonlight, and we listened. We heard no cars. Or trains. Or planes. We heard no sounds of man. But over the cicadas and nocturnal rustlings and mysterious tiny crunches, we heard the yipping of coyotes nearby and finally one long, lovely howl at that moon before the pack moved away. It was some time before we could stir from that magic and days before the awe of it faded. 

We are excited to investigate this new temporary home, to see what lies beyond the casino reputation, to cast for trout in this river and rest our cheeks against the ponderosa pines in these mountains. To redefine “home” once again and to do our work, the work of being here, the work of learning and growing and embracing transition and fleetingness.

The Giving of Thanks

This week I plan to dig deep into the practice of gratitude. Not a trite platitude for things which I know I should be grateful for, but to let the real truth of the beauty in my life sink deep into my bones and to fully and unabashedly acknowledge the gifts I've been given. 

I begin today. I begin with the overwhelming gratitude that I feel for the basic fact of my very existence. I am a survivor of cancer, of violence at the hand of another, of heartbreak, and of my own poor decisions. But I am here. And I am whole. And I am enough.

And that is enough.

And for that I am so, so, so grateful.

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Pssst...have you heard about REI's Opt Outside campaign? Consider trading competitive consumerism in for a day spent outdoors this Friday!