In Search Of Gratitude
This morning, the sky is grey, the air is full of gentle, misty drizzle and I am grateful. As I walked around town doing errands, I overheard people grousing about the weather (“It’s ruining my holiday!”) and thought, oh sister, in global terms, this is Eden. The PNW has the best climate on the planet these days and I for one am deeply appreciative. In my neck of the woods, we are running dry early after a very dry winter and spring. Since January 1, we’ve only had two days with more than an inch of rain, and we’re getting wildfire readiness alerts about a month ahead of usual. So far, we’ve been very fortunate to be smoke free when so many other places are burning. It’s likely only a matter of time before it’s our turn to experience the hell of horrible air quality again so I’m being consciously grateful for every clear day.
I’ve been practicing gratitude a lot lately, especially after a chat with my wonderful (young!) new doctor. Doctor Tzou is a skilled listener and an acute observer and I can’t get away with returning equivocal answers to questions like, “how anxious would you say you are these days?” We had a good conversation about anxiety and stress and she gently suggested that I keep daily notes about mood and feelings and what triggers anxiety. Oh ugh. But yes, so fine. Not too surprisingly, my daughter’s suffering is right up there; she’s been changing from a powerful, effective medication that isn’t safe for long term use to a biological one that will hopefully control her psoriasis longer term. She was warned that there might be a gap in protection during the shift and sure enough, just as her skin had almost entirely cleared up, the painful rash and peeling blisters surged back. When it reached her torso, sometimes the skin has been peeling so fast that the ostomy bag falls off, skin and all.
Finding Inner Gratitude Outside
It’s not easy to find peace and gratitude in these difficult times, especially when someone in your daily life is experiencing acute pain and grief. The most effective way I’ve found to keep from sliding down the slippery path to sorrowful despair is by going outside. I learned this a long time ago and I’m grateful(!) that I haven’t totally forgotten the lesson. Many years ago, my dear Jungian therapist pointed out that I am very skillful with catastrophic expectations. He challenged me to stop myself when I start dreaming into trouble and instead, dream up three (!) anastrophic possible outcomes. That was SO HARD and it really took a lot of work but eventually I got the hang of it. However, as life events crowded around again I slipped back into my lifelong, unhealthy habit until my AlAnon sponsor called out my remarkable talent for dreaming up disasters. Martha said, “You are PRACTICING being negative and you don’t need the practice, so stop it right now. I want you to come up with ten things you are grateful for every day. Ten times a day, and all different!”
Ack! But ok. I dutifully started noting down ten things I was grateful for, ten times a day. To do it, I soon realized that I had to go outside, in more ways than one. As long as I stayed in my head, it was impossible to see past my own well trained scenarios of doom and failure. As long as I stayed in my house, at my desk, in my room, my disaster dreaming snuck into everything I did. When I went outside and actively paid attention to anything that wasn’t ME, everything changed. I could hear birds, bees, frogs, and wind in the trees. I could see flowers, birds, cats, small dogs, children, awesome clouds, the moon, rain sparkling on leaves and in spiderwebs.
Oh, Woops But Thank You
Back then, I carried file cards in my purse and pocket and car to capture ideas and thoughts for my writing work, so every day I took ten cards with me and ten times a day, I found ten things that I could truly feel grateful for. All different, right? Given my state of anxious depression, that took some doing but nature and gardens have magical healing powers that can comfort even the grumpiest grump. When I met with Martha a week later, I proudly handed her my stack of cards with 700 gratitudes, all different. She looked astounded and said, “Oh, woops, I just meant ten a day.”
It still makes me smile when I remember the stricken look on her face but over time, it became obvious that doing the work so intensely over that week had actually created a new neural pathway in my brain. That was well over 20 years ago and I can’t say that I don’t still slip into doom-gloom because I do. However, I’m much better at catching myself and I still lean into the file card system if I need to. And even as I watch my daughter struggling just to be in this weary world, I also see my grandkids and other kids making imaginative use of natural materials, in the garden, in the woods, at the beach. They know how to access that natural magic without being told and the products of their pleasure can ease the hearts of everyone who passes by. Onward, right?