Posted in A Day In The Life, mindfulness

Thanks be to… ?

Once upon a time I prayed every day to thank Jehovah for everything I had. Today is Thanksgiving 2020, a year of incredible difficulty for every single person I know, and also the 400th anniversary of Plymouth Rock, and therefore a time to think about the narrative we’ve been told about Thanksgiving, gratitude, and the Native Americans.

Once, a few years ago, shortly after Anthony died, I told mom I was thankful for … something, I don’t even remember what it was. She asked me, who was I grateful to? I’m not sure what prompted this question. She almost never asks me about my beliefs or my spiritual life or much of anything else.

At any rate, on this particular occasion she did. I stumbled around the unexpected question and said, “God,” and though that is not a lie, there’s so much more to my answer than that. So I want to revisit this question this Thanksgiving and talk about God and Gratitude. 

Every day in my journal I write three things I’m grateful for. This might even have been what mom was asking about, because I’ve recommended a gratitude practice for both her and dad, and once, to my surprise, she told me she took our advice and that it went well. Even when I don’t have time for my full journaling practice, which is rare, I try to at least include gratitude. 

Today, on this Thanksgiving, I wrote that I am grateful that I practice giving thanks every day. When I was a Jehovah’s Witness we did not technically celebrate Thanksgiving and our reasoning was that, “we give thanks every day.” But I do not think that I can say I practiced gratitude then. It was more a matter of, “you are required to pray, and this is how you pray: thanks for our food and our family and (fill in the blank and sometimes get creative) and all the things you give us. We ask that you bless (fill in the blank and sometimes get creative). In Jesus’ name, Amen.” You thank, you ask, amen. It was a plug and play recipe. 

The gratitude I practice now is different. When you begin this practice, you name all the same things you would if you were sitting around the Thanksgiving table doing the ritual of naming what you are grateful for: food, family, shelter, love, friends, health, abundance. But when the ritual is daily, you can’t keep naming those seven things, so you start to get creative. You name the spiderweb glistening in the slanting morning sunlight. The quiet you’ve been waiting for for a week. Puppy dog eyes. Children’s laughter. The smell of baking bread. The peaceful ring of wind chimes. Having transportation. Being able to work from home. The excellent tea latte you’re drinking this morning. Hugs, for which you have always been grateful but which are so much more meaningful in this year of hug deficiency. A true practice of gratitude makes you notice more things for which to be grateful, and therefore, in my opinion, is the secret to happiness. The happiness is in the noticing. 

That does leave the question of “to whom”, though, and for those of us who are religious we often don’t get past God. But here is my answer: I am thankful for the humans who work so that society functions, in so many ways, most of whom I will never meet, and especially this year I am thinking of people who are deemed “essential” but who at the same time we are more or less throwing to the wolves in putting them on the front lines without mask mandates, at least in my state. I am grateful to those people who fill all those functions. The grocery store clerk, the butcher, the mail lady who brings so much extra stuff this year, the farmer, the veterinarian, the workers in far-off lands who make the products that make my life possible and better. I thank Russ, who works hard for our family and for the people he serves. I thank the Earth for her bounty and for so many of those little things that I notice every day that make me happy and get written in my journal. I thank mom and dad for giving me life and raising me well. I thank my family at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville for believing in me and giving me a chance to serve. I thank all my ancestors. I thank my in-laws for adopting me and being my family in ways my family can’t, especially on holidays, but also in everyday ways, all year. I thank the sun and the rain and the rich soil. And yes, I thank the Divine that is in all of these things. 

I know that many of us are missing normal so much right now. May this Thanksgiving be a true time of giving thanks, of finding your center by remembering what is, even now, so very good about life. May you give thanks for the loved ones you are missing. May we all be blessed with better days ahead. 

Amen.

Posted in A Day In The Life, Creatures, mindfulness

Delight

Last week I gave a sermon entitled, How Can I Be Joyful When Everything is Awful? In it, I highlighted a book of essays by Ross Gay entitled The Book of Delights. He made a simple, even obvious practice of noticing things to be delighted in, and writing a mini essay every day about something that delighted him. I’ll post the sermon here, or somewhere, later. But I’ve been dipping into this practice myself, in place of my Gratitude practice (3 things I’m grateful for each day). Gratitude implies reciprocal obligation, but Delight requires nothing but presence, and for that reason I love it. So I thought I would also make a practice of sharing some of my delight here, so that you can find yours too.

Here’s today’s.

Most people don’t like spiders. They fascinate me. I think jumping spiders are adorable (and I once adopted one), and orb weavers are queens. Last month I noticed a web in my bushes that looked like an upside-down, 2-layer parachute. I posted it on Facebook and a naturalist friend of mine told me it was the web of a Bowl-and-Doily Spider. They catch prey in the “bowl” and lie in wait in the “doily” underneath. Damn, that’s cool! Anything that builds things is cool, even if I do a crazy dance after smacking into them while hiking.

This morning, I went for my simple half-mile walk around the block with Bandit, after skipping several days. It’s been hard to get up (allergies? grief?). There were spiderwebs everywhere in the wild places along the road, gem-studded with sparkling dew snagging rainbows from the slanting rains of the early morning sun. I am struck by how often my delights are contained in this 12-minute morning walk, and how much I struggle to do it, despite that.

Posted in mindfulness

Still and Small

My intuition speaks in strange ways sometimes. This morning, first, in the song “What a Feeling” which is a song I’ve never been particularly fond of. “First when there’s nothing but a slow-growing dream that your fear seems to hide deep inside your mind.” And then, I chased a lead: where does the phrase “still, small voice” come from? What? The Bible? I haven’t found inspiration in the Bible since before I was another person. It doesn’t matter where the words come from, though, does it?

“The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the lord was not in the fire, and after the fire, a still, small voice.” — 1 Kings 19:11-12

It made me think of trauma. Whether you think God is testing you or just shit happens, you’ve been through the wind and the earthquake and the fire, haven’t you? Maybe you resisted the wind and thought, Damn it, why does this shit always happen to me? And you couldn’t see the purpose or if there even was one. And then more stuff happened, and more stuff, and by the end you’re standing in what seems like a wreckage wondering whyyyyyy, and then you realize that it all needed to go anyway, and there’s nothing left…

…. but the still, small voice. When you’re rubbed raw from all the fire and fury, and you stop resisting and just witness, get quiet, breathe, listen. I don’t know if it’s God’s voice or something from inside me, but I’ve heard it. Have you?

Posted in mindfulness

Now Is a Gift; That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Different geese, prettier day.

My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.

If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.

We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”

I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.

There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.

Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.

Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.

Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.

Posted in mindfulness

Rituals of Gratitude

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
My father’s good health,
My daughter’s new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter how many times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,
And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood Thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,
And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.
And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep on going,
I keep naming and listing,

Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all.

— Three Gratitudes, Carrie Newcomer

Happy Thanksgiving.

For most people, this holiday is about gathering, family, and way too much food, but my wish for you is that it is also about actual giving of thanks, whether you thank the people who loved you this year or give thanks to the divine. It doesn’t matter. Gratitude changes us in wonderful ways, and I firmly believe that it should be among our regular practices not just one day a year, but every day.

My mother recently told me that she and my father, who has a great deal of problem with anxiety, have begun a daily Gratitude Practice together, each sharing three things at the dinner table for which they are grateful. She said dad called her up one day to tell her he “had a thing!” to share with her that evening. For me, I keep a journal, and each day I write three things (at least) for which I am grateful.

When you make this a yearly practice, you hit the big ones: family, health, home, well-being, friends, community, employment, gathering. When you make it a daily practice, everything changes. You start looking for little things to be grateful for, that you can write or share at your daily ritual. You start to focus on what is right with your life when it is so very easy to focus on what is wrong. And I believe, when you focus on the positive, you invite more of it into your life. People are attracted to positive people. You start to like the grateful person you see in the mirror every morning. You gain confidence that good things WILL happen.

It truly is life-changing. I beg you to try it, for a month at least. Share it on Facebook or Twitter. Write it in a journal. Make it a ritual in your family.

I’m not sure what the magic of three is. You don’t have to do three. You can do one. But for some reason three makes me push past the one big thing in my day that makes me smile, and encourages me to find more. There is always more. There is poetry in it. Yes, the sun is shining today, and it’s nice to notice that, but I can be grateful for the cheering glow behind my eyelids while I’m basking in it. I can be grateful for the long golden shadows at the end of the day. I can be grateful for the relief I feel after many gray days when the sun greets me and makes me realize that I didn’t know how much I needed to see it. Push your gratitude farther this year, dig into details and your feelings, let it really make you present. Why is the sunshine good? Why is your marriage good? Why is your job good? What is good about gathering with family, today? Yes, there is stress about the gathering, but you keep doing it year after year. Surely it’s not solely out of a sense of obligation. You’re not obligated, not truly. Find the joy in every small thing, the reason you keep doing it, and if you can’t… why are you still doing it? There is truth in gratitude, as well. Honesty. Maybe a wake-up call.

I am thankful that you are here, reading my words. I have known since I was small that words were my blessing and my craft. I have written a lot of words in a lot of journals since then, but now I am honored to bring them to the Internet, and more honored that you took the time to stop and listen to my thoughts. May this holiday season bring you joy that you have been forgetting to look for. ❤