November 22, 2007

my gratitude gremlin

totally grateful for my Ben, Canon Rebel XTI

I know this is a sacrilege to mention on Thanksgiving Day, scandalous to say out loud on any day really, but I have a confession: I'm having an allergy to the word gratitude.

Maybe it's just been overused, maybe there are too many books abut it, maybe I am just being finicky, but the word is losing its meaning for me. Even more, lately when I hear the word gratitude I feel anxious, then ungrateful, then maybe even a little ashamed. The voices in my head get really loud. My gratitude gremlin picks up a megaphone: YOU ARE NOT GRATEFUL ENOUGH! WHAT HAPPPENED TO THAT GRATITUDE JOURNAL? IF YOU WERE MORE GRATEFUL, YOU WOULD BE HAPPY.

Do you remember the bewilderment of eating dinner when you were a kid and having a parent say, "Eat the rest of your food! There are children starving in Africa!" I remember feeling shame at these moments, then guilt and confusion about how I could mail the food to a faraway land. Being grateful can be yet another way we beat ourselves up, another tool for self-loathing, or a way to explain the upsets in our lives. I wasn't grateful enough...

How do we find our way into gratitude when this word is often loaded with a lot of old and even new (age) baggage?

When going through (in)fertility I had folks say to me, "You should just be grateful you have a husband who loves you." How can you argue with this? It is true... and I was grateful for that. I also longed for a baby. To let that longing feel wrong, or to feel unworthy of anything more, was a confusing part of the grief of that journey. Today, when I feel exhausted, frustrated or less than supermom, I feel guilty all over again. After wanting Ben for so many years, I feel extra self-conscious when I don't regularly gush about how grateful I am (even to myself).

Is there a better way into gratitude? One with a little less guilt involved? Am I the only one with a gratitude gremlin?

I had a realization the other day during a coaching session. I began the call by saying that I had been feeling chronically out of touch with myself, ungrounded, not present. I said that I had this sense that I wanted to feel more gratitude, be more in the moment, not such a doing machine.

We began by just sinking into my body. What did it feel like to stop? to feel the weight of my body on the ground? I noticed that I had a hard time letting go of all of the things I had to do. My list of unfinished things was endless and creating a lot of anxiety. I couldn't help but think I was wasting time lying there.

After a few more minutes though I sunk in and felt how good it felt to stop. Like that saying about the water settling and becoming clear, I began to see how my mind became more clear when I stopped moving. I noticed how much energy I spend doing things that aren't really important. I saw how my energy was all over the map, how if I moved more slowly, with more intention, I could be more efficient abut where to put my energy and not exhaust myself. I could put my energy into things that really matter to me.

After our session, I knew I needed to walk, with one simple task: to see, to notice, and to appreciate. I had a blissful stroll in the autumn oranges, yellows and greens (that I posted about last week) and I realized that this is how I do it. This is how I practice gratitude. It is in the seeing for me, the noticing, the appreciating. It's where my camera becomes a very handy tool, because when I am carrying it, I am also carrying the question: What is beautiful about this moment? What is interesting? What is there to notice? What is there to appreciate?

At the end of that walk, I felt full. I felt thankful. I would have even been able to tell you what I felt grateful for (guilt free). But I had to get there first, to that place of noticing to count my blessings.

This Thanksgiving, I have an assignment for you. Take a minute and stop. Maybe it's when you are in the bathroom powdering your nose at your in-laws. Maybe you take a brisk walk around the block. Then trade in the word gratitude for appreciation and notice what there is to appreciate. If you were to take a picture, what would you snap? Is it a perfectly cooked turkey? Did someone choose just the right flowers for the centerpiece? What is there to appreciate about your family? Is it the lovely way your mom's hair curls over her ear? Is it the sweet voice your brother uses with his nephew? Is it the crackle of the fire or the smell of wood smoke?

One of my all time favorite quotes is by Robert Henri from the book The Art Spirit. He says, "It's not about making art, it's about living a life that makes art inevitable." I believe the same can go for being thankful. It's about stopping every once in a while, being present, and living in a space of appreciation. This might be the closest thing to living a life that makes gratitude inevitable.

Posted on November 22, 2007 08:36 AM

This is such a great post on so many levels. First of all, that photo of Ben makes me oh so happy! All of your remarks about gratitude resonate with me and the remarks about taking time to stop and look around - well, you have inspired me to do that so much over the past three years. I was first drawn to this space because of your beautiful photography. It helped me to look at life a bit closer and to find the sweet stuff in each day, even the ugly bits became more relevant. So, thank you my friend...

Posted by: kristine at November 29, 2007 08:56 AM

I did not internalize the concept of gratitude until I stopped being controlled by what I "should" be doing. "Should" was something I imposed on myself by comparing myself to others, mostly unfavorably. Guilt was a regular companion.

I finally learned how to let go of all this and being happier with myself has led to a satisfaction with life - gratitude came hand in hand with it. Gratitude was not something others could impose on me, it had to come from within. I wholeheartedly agree that gratitude and appreciation are very much linked. What we appreciate varies from person to person. Finding what this is for you personally goes a huge way in compensating for the trials that life throws at us. Taking time out to 'smell your own roses' is certainly worthwhile.

Posted by: Sueblimely at November 28, 2007 06:14 AM

Well said!

We are Human Beings afterall...not Human Doings.

Posted by: Susan at November 27, 2007 07:32 AM

this was wonderful to read. Thank you andrea!

Posted by: penelope at November 26, 2007 06:34 AM

I punished myself during my son's whole first year of life with the thought, "if you were grateful, you would be happy/happier." But I've decided you can be depressed and grateful. Or even plain old sad and still grateful. I was overwhelmed with gratitude--but also with unworthiness. I see the blessings all around me. For me, the more difficult work comes in recognizing that I am worthy of my blessing simply because I am God's daughter.

Posted by: Surcie at November 26, 2007 06:14 AM

big time.
for your thoughts and assignment.

Posted by: claire at November 26, 2007 02:04 AM

Simply fantastic, Andrea.

Posted by: shelley noble at November 26, 2007 12:12 AM

I had never seen that Henri quote before, and ever since reading it here yesterday, I can't get it out of my mind. Perfect, simply perfect.

Posted by: Toni at November 25, 2007 01:08 PM

i needed this today.
thank you, thank you.

Posted by: sara at November 24, 2007 07:00 PM

Thank you, Andrea, for crystallizing your insights and taking the time to share them. Good work.

Posted by: Nina at November 24, 2007 12:05 PM

Dear Andrea; You make so much sense! And reading the comments you are getting, I think you make a huge, wonderful difference in your readers life. Mine too! I just adore your photos, especially of Ben. Have a great weekend:-)

Posted by: Gry at November 24, 2007 03:36 AM

In our practice, appreciation isn't a sentiment. Appreciation is intimacy. When you are truly intimate, all sentiments are extra.

Posted by: Karen Maezen Miller at November 23, 2007 05:06 PM

first, ben looks so much like you in that picture, it is so great.
I think that we as a society have put too much pressure on ourselves to LIST what we are grateful for, list our achievements, our goals, etc. of course journaling and put goals on paper help so many people, including myself. however, why do we have to list everything, why do we HAVE to do ONE MORE THING? I think if we were all more PRESENT in each and every moment, with each person we meet, in nature, in hard situations and in joyful situations, we would easily recognize all there is to be grateful for and we would then and there be thankful. it would become second-nature to us.
thanks for stretching my brain today.

Posted by: jessica at November 23, 2007 03:24 PM

my 4.5 year old calls her bottom her 'gratitude'
i have no idea why. but i find it hilarious when she mooons me and says "i'm showing you my gratitude"
in fact i think i'll blog about it... thanks for the great idea!!!

Posted by: Jen downer at November 23, 2007 03:22 PM

This is why I read this blog. Because you make me think about stuff i have already been thinking about but you crystalise it all in an especially great way.
Because you are right, and though I do do gratitude lists and they are helpful, sometimes being really really pissed off and writing down completely ungrateful lists is even better. Because you are allowed to get mad and tired and bored and frustrated and whatever else.
Someone mentioned Neruda. He wrote a lovely poem about loving all things madly and he wrote a big list of daft things that he loved.
Know what I love? My stripy socks. I no longer own any socks that arent stripy and when i see them, in their big pile, i feel a rush of something. Joy I suppose. There's a lot to be said for all emotions, and i do believe, there is a time for all of them under this sun.

Posted by: Emma at November 23, 2007 12:51 PM

I am so with you here Andrea - and I love that last quote - thanks for including that :).

Posted by: Ali at November 23, 2007 09:29 AM

I hear you.

My husband and I had a counseling session the other night and our therapist talked about choosing how we deal with things, how we react, how we think. And I knew there was value there, but I also knew it takes more for me than choosing how I am in the moment. This is because, I think, my general state is not one of happiness or gratitude. It is one of stress, frustration, questions of value, and waiting for the big happiness moments.

I have needed a change in the broader way I approach the world. I needed to take a step back and make a bigger change before the effort in choice could work as well as I knew it could.

We are in counseling because I am am dealing with illness. This illness has upped the negative feelings that were already there. But, for the last few weeks, I have been keeping a journal where I write down only Good things. This is not a journal I call a gratitude journal - I've already tried that and didn't see it through. This is a place where I spend 1-5 minutes before bed writing down as briefly as possible something I consider good. This is especially helpful to me on days when I usually would just write This Day Sucks.

Sample entries:

I made good cupcakes.
I kept trying all day long.
Jacob's (my 6 year old) new pink sneakers.
A student told me I dropped a glove.
A student held the door for me.
I prayed.
I held the door for someone at the mailboxes.
Read to Jacob from the Wizard of Oz.
Gave Jacob kisses good-bye and hello.

It isn't all about what I did that was good, but often contains a mix of goodness. I don't go back and read these entries. But, I think doing this has shifted the way I'm seeing the world.

It's like I'm making a little chain of small happinesses.

I'm not waiting for the big happiness moment either. I can honestly say for the first time in years I am both happy and at peace more than I am negative, stressed, or worried. This is just something that seems to be working for me. It's similar to your walk. I think it is significant, to make it a habit. I think it works for me because it isn't time consuming. My journal is titled "An Effort in Optimism" because I resisted the idea of being optimistic in the middle of such suffering. I knew if I resisted it that much, I should probably give it a try :-)

Thank you very much for your thoughts. They're well put and timely for me.


Posted by: Jennifer (she said) at November 23, 2007 07:46 AM

You always post the right thing at the right time for something I can totally relate to. Thank you.

Posted by: Jenny Rebecca at November 23, 2007 07:35 AM

I went back and read the quote again. Then I wrote it in my mind as "It's not about being happy. It's about living a life that makes being happy inevitable." And poof! Lights went on and I knew the changes I need to make for that to happen. Or perhaps I've known them awhile and they've now become glaringly clear. At any rate, thank you for cutting to the chase, and in doing so causing me to, too. Happy Holidays!

Posted by: Barbara at November 23, 2007 07:34 AM

Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe being grateful doesn't make us happy; maybe being happy makes us grateful. You found gratitude when you stopped trying to force it and instead looked for small lovely reasons to be happy.

"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."
-G.K. Chesteron

And you should know that we are glad for you and your deep thoughts and honesty!

Posted by: kalki at November 23, 2007 05:53 AM

i needed this too.
i was especially loving the part of infertility.
i even have a couple of friends(who also have kids) when i'm so stressed out with my 2 little sweethearts...that say things like, just be grateful you have 2 kids! after the pills and surgery and's like some people expect it to be happy easygoing after that. and nothing is easygoing about having kids.

i've been carrying this stone in my pocket the last few days that says improvise. and i love it. being a momma is all about improvising.

ok. that turned into a bit of a random ramble.

i'm thankful for your blog and that you share yourself honestly with the world.


Posted by: jill s at November 23, 2007 03:58 AM

i needed this too.
i was especially loving the part of infertility.
i even have a couple of friends(who also have kids) when i'm so stressed out with my 2 little sweethearts...that say things like, just be grateful you have 2 kids! after the pills and surgery and's like some people expect it to be happy easygoing after that. and nothing is easygoing about having kids.

i've been carrying this stone in my pocket the last few days that says improvise. and i love it. being a momma is all about improvising.

ok. that turned into a bit of a random ramble.

i'm thankful for your blog and that you share yourself honestly with the world.


Posted by: jill s at November 23, 2007 03:57 AM

I enjoyed this and blogged the quote forward. Thanks, I needed to read your post.

Posted by: Di at November 23, 2007 01:45 AM

I started crying when i was reading this, because I find it so difficult to cope with instances that you mentioned where people tell you that you 'should' be grateful. For starters, I find that 'should' is often an awful word. To tell yourself or another that you should 'be' or 'do' something often invites guilt and a sense of shame. And I've often had the feeling that people telling me 'I should be grateful' for something simply denies my actual experience and pushes me into silence. Thanks for bringing up your discomfort with gratitude-- I can really relate to it.

At the same time, I love what you have said regarding appreciation and gratitude, and appreciating the special, little touches that make you feel alive. I've had very little money this year, and I've noticed that because I haven't been bound up with consumerism, I have appreciated the simplest of things so much. REALLY appreciate them-- like I am in the moment and experiencing the beauty of the river/the way my plants are flourishing/the way my niece smiles like her Mum, fully. Isabel Allende described Neruda as a man who 'sang to life'. I love that expression-- when I appreciate the little things I feel like I am singing to life.

Thanks Andrea :)

Posted by: Laura at November 22, 2007 09:34 PM

I needed this today - thank you.

Posted by: blackbird at November 22, 2007 07:50 PM

Good stuff Andrea. I am listening.

When poet/songwriter Warren Zevon was dying he exhorted others to "enjoy every sandwich". I take those words very seriously.

Posted by: Tom Mohan at November 22, 2007 07:35 PM

It must have taken some gumption to post something so raw and honest and it is utterly inspiring. Guilt has a horrible way of creeping into things but appreciation really sidesteps that monster and lets the beauty shine through.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Posted by: Micheline at November 22, 2007 07:06 PM

I appreciate your honesty about how "grateful/gratitude" is overused and misused. I appreciate your honesty about how you have moments of discontent even in the midst of having a good life or of having what you wanted.

I appreciate my (hard-won) willingness to be human, to embrace myself in all of my complexity, despite being criticized by some people for being who I am.

Posted by: W. Lotus at November 22, 2007 06:49 PM

lovely- thank you for that- so many wonderful words. i am stopping right this moment to appreciate them.
thank you,

Posted by: jen at November 22, 2007 06:39 PM

your words reached right into my heart today.

hope you are having a peaceful day.



p.s. ben is lit from within. those eyes and the way he looks at you. he loves his you to the moon and stars!

Posted by: meesh at November 22, 2007 06:38 PM

Thank you, Andrea. I wish I had read this earlier today and enjoyed more of the moments I had with Mom. But this is always good to remember. Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

Posted by: ~moe~ at November 22, 2007 06:36 PM

I find it helpful, when I feel guilty or ungrateful, to let myself feel those things and love myself just as I am. With all the imperfections. I started a 'thankfullness' journal a while ago. Now I include, in my journal, the thing I am most grateful for AND the thing I am least gratful for that day. And I practice accepting myself in the those least grateful moments instead of feeling guilty and beating myself up. It's been really helpful for me. I think it's just as important to accept our screw-ups as it is to be grateful.

Posted by: Monica at November 22, 2007 03:28 PM

Yes! Words lose their meaning when over-used. "Grateful," "blessed," "psyched," "tragedy," "hero." Yes.

Your post last week about the walk prompted me to stop rushing around and take a real walk, not an exercise walk. Thank you for that. I posted the drawing on my blog in case you want to peek.

Posted by: Crayons at November 22, 2007 03:19 PM

Appreciation in full swing up here: The smell of a cooking turkey that fills our cabin, a full glass of red wine, the sound of a little one playing with trains, the news of our neighbors pregnancy, Alaska's winter sunsets, good words, images and ideas that stretch across the globe! Happy THANKS-GIVING!

Posted by: Amy K. at November 22, 2007 03:16 PM

I appreciate you!

Posted by: Lin at November 22, 2007 01:25 PM

Thank you. We all need reminders to remember from time to time. You are one I come to so I can remember to remember.

Posted by: witchypoo at November 22, 2007 01:14 PM

A few years ago my husband and I went for a walk in the beautiful woods with a very young friend. I think she was about 8 at the time. As we began our walk in the wild woods she ran ahead full of "kid moves" and energy. Suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks next to a small pool of water with one perfect leaf floating in it. Spreading her arms wide as if she wanted to embrace the whole vision she called back to us "Appreciation!" Before darting on ahead to find the next thing to appreciate. We all spent the whole walk throwing our arms open and shouting at the top of our lungs APPRECIATION!
at any small (or large) part of nature that moved us to take a moment. Great kid....

Posted by: Pamela at November 22, 2007 01:04 PM

Beautiful picture. Beautiful post.

Posted by: reddirtroad at November 22, 2007 12:38 PM

You have a wonderful way of looking at the many pieces that make up a life and seeing them both separately and how they affect the whole. Inspiring. I appreciate being able to gain this persepctive from reading all of your posts and hope that they never stop!
Thanks and have a wonderful holiday.

Posted by: Kristen at November 22, 2007 12:28 PM

Your thoughts in today's post were so dead on!!
I know I am soooo... blessed but often times I want more, or simply don't take the time to stop and relish all that I do have.
I think as a mom in this fast paced world, we get so caught up in the destination that many of us forget the beauty of the jouney itself.
I totally get what you said about gratitude.
Sometimes it's as if being grateful, and showing it is the goal.
And then it becomes yet one more thing on the endless "to do" list....YUCK!!!
Your honest words were just what I needed today as I rush around preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

Enjoy your day dear Andrea.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your beautiful family.

Posted by: Julia at November 22, 2007 10:57 AM

Beautifully said. Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by: Brian at November 22, 2007 10:47 AM

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Ben is just absolutely beautiful.

Posted by: Robyn at November 22, 2007 10:41 AM

Today I was snapping at staff about their failure to get progress on the food aid shipments and snapping at drivers about their constant whining about security on the road. I was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and far from grateful.

I knew I needed to change the tune so I went for a walk along the river. I started to tell myself to be grateful for all the incredibly privilege I have and more understanding of my colleagues given all the challenges they live with. The gratitude gremlin wasn't having a bar of it.

Then I stopped and simply asked myself to appreciate the setting sun, from the incredible filter effect from the dust (forget droughts for a minute and appreciate the beauty) to the sparkling reflections on the water.

As I got caught up in the simple beauty it was so easy to appreciate the quiet presence of my security guard walking with me, and to start thinking (without guilt) about all he has lived through in these 30 years of war and before I knew it I was feeling compassion for my colleagues.

Posted by: Frida at November 22, 2007 10:26 AM

Wow - are we on the same page! I just wrote about this same thing. But I don't have your writing chops - you described it beautifully.

Posted by: Lianne at November 22, 2007 10:03 AM

Wow - are we on the same page! But I don't have you writing chops - you described it beautifully.

Posted by: Lianne at November 22, 2007 10:01 AM

I love that Robert Henri quote. I had not heard it before.

Posted by: Jill at November 22, 2007 09:56 AM

This sure did speak to me. I've been doing serious battle with the gratitude gremlin, about how dare I want anything given all I have, given all those with so little. But if I dare express my complaint with self, I see it is not so wrong to want more connections and love in my life. On the other hand, that gratitude gremlin raises his hand, and I foolishly call on him and allow him to say, "You should be grateful for all you have."


You beautifully write on this issue, and today I will embrace the word 'appreciation' because it truly feels less loaded.


And Happy Thanksgiving...

Posted by: deezee at November 22, 2007 09:35 AM

Well put, indeed!

Posted by: Kenzie at November 22, 2007 09:32 AM


Posted by: Dr. S at November 22, 2007 09:13 AM