On Cultivating Gratitude (Yes, Even Right Now)

"Gratitude isn’t for the faint of heart. When we are in scarcity about time, money or personal space, gratitude seems hard to grasp."
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Our friend Jen Patterson is back, with some encouraging words on grasping gratitude, which, she admits, is not the easiest of tasks right now. But we can summon it, and that feel-good energy is pivotal to wellbeing. Here is her advice and a trick to help make it happen...

Somewhere in the middle of a blissful week of brown-eyed deer, green mosses dripping from the beach pines, and the broad swath of ocean stretching to meet billowy clouds on the Oregon Coast, Washington announced it was going back into lockdown.

Within hours, Costco sold out of toilet paper. (If only toilet paper could save us.) And all this renewed stockpiling got me thinking about what is truly essential right now, and what came to mind was gratitude.

I understand how the thought of gratitude can be cloying or annoying. “I’m over gratitude,” one of my clients told me flatly the other day. She had called to book a coaching session. Her husband had recently lost his job. He had waded into more childcare, but grudgingly. She was hating her job. She felt wrung out.

Having felt wrung out myself, I have been working on building my own gratitude muscles. There is a moment each day when these muscles are put to the test: It’s when I have to psyche myself back into being a parent.

My mornings usually look like this: Wake up. Cajole a small boy awake and into the bathroom to release his bladder, this negotiation bookended by an insistent “I don’t have to go” and an incredulous “Wow, that was a lot of peepee, mommy.” Play LEGOs or do a puzzle or build a spaceship. Cajole a small boy into getting dressed, this negotiation full of fanciful details about the firefighter’s official gear (wink, wink) I have waiting for him. That kind of zhuzh usually nets me the offer of one naked leg which I thread into a pair of clean undies. A full toddler body soon follows. A snack for the car, a few songs by Blippi, sign-in and temperature check at daycare.

Then, my time is my own.

On an open day I have sessions with clients or work on a piece of writing. I go for a walk. I stand in my yard barefoot in between Zoom calls and listen for what the birds have to say.

And then, it’s time to head back up to daycare. Already.

I do love my time with Kismet. I am a late-in-life parent who waited years for an adoption. And I know that I am lucky—a daycare still operating, my own work still coming in the door, self-employed and able to set my own pace. But especially during COVID when the casual babysitter has been socially-distanced out, when evening to myself is going on 9 months, I find myself wishing daily that 3:30pm wasn’t for a few more hours yet. The data points of my good fortune sometimes do not connect with the feeling of it.

So, I get in the car. I turn off the music. And I begin repeating to myself, “I am grateful.”

Gratitude comes from a proto-European root word gwere, with two meanings. One, “to favor” (gratitude, gracious, ingratiate). But also, “heavy” (grave, gravity, grief, aggravate). The way I interpret this is that gratitude isn’t for the faint of heart. When we are in scarcity about time, money or personal space, gratitude seems hard to grasp. Like the word origin, it is a weight—one that feels too heavy to bear in a weakened, anemic state. When we are in gratitude, it is easy to be thankful for everything. We can hold it all and take on more.

When my client and I connected for her session, she told me with a sigh, “I’m trying gratitude again.” So I suggested, “You don’t have to feel thankful for your husband or kids right now. Start with something small, and then build back up.”

In my Gratitude Commute to pick up K from school, I often start small. There is always something that catches me and opens the door for a fuller thankfulness: The way the sun hits the leaves in that moment. A driver giving a friendly wave because I’ve let them into the lane of traffic. An acknowledgement that today, a new client started. I call this “packing the snowball.” I add a little bit of snow, then a little more, and soon the snowball is too large to carry. What was an exercise in scrimping together piecemeal thanks takes on undeniable heft.

There’s always a moment—usually part way up the big hill to K’s school—when I can feel it again. When my “I am grateful” mantra merges with the sun on the red autumn leaves of a Japanese maple or the memory of Kismet, bucket in hand, tottering down the dune to the surf. Tears spring to my eyes. And I am able to connect to a well of thankfulness.

Essentially, it’s fake it til I make it.

A lot of conscious people do gratitude journaling—cataloguing at the beginning of each day what they are thankful for. I love this idea, but I've never been good at journaling, and now with my mornings devoted to toddler cajoling, it isn't practical. 

Instead, I like to think of my Gratitude Pantry—a mental storage of emotional moments that evoke gratitude for me: The first glimpse of the big rock on the approach to “our” beach, when like a happy dog, my heart races and I have to roll down my window to inhale the woodsmoke and salt air; the birth of my son, when my lucky number, 17, flashed everywhere to remind me of the lottery I had just won, first in the date of the email (7-11-17, “All ones and sevens!” noted my sister-in-law) asking was I interested in being in the pool for this baby (I was!), then in his birth time, 1 day and 7 minutes after I sent in my yes; the death of my grandma, where my aunt T and I watched a single tear roll out of her left eye as she slipped to the other side and the next morning came with bright with sun and a white cottony fog, like my grandma was beaming through the veil.

If I ever need a gratitude short cut, these are where I go: This simple mantra, these small caught moments, these ritualized places, these transformational experiences. The trick is to have a stockpile ready to wield when I start to feel wrung out. I try to embody the spaciousness of the beach or the magic of K’s birth as a live feeling in my body rather than a cerebral thought. It’s like smudging the house—I want to transform my energy when the moment requires it.

After I began my Gratitude Commute, I noticed a change in Kismet. Before, when I arrived to pick him up, he wanted to stay. He would wander along the perimeter of the fenced play-yard, talking to his friends through the chain link. He’d protest getting in the car. What I realized is he was mirroring my own energy back to me—just as I wasn’t ready for him, he wasn’t ready for me.

Now, he races down the hall to the foyer and rockets into my arms. He is eager to share something with me—the Elsa sticker he earned for good listening, or news about who left early that day. As we step out the door, I take off my mask and kiss his cheeks over and over as I put him in the car.

Remember this moment, I tell myself. Remember this, because this is a feeling I will need for later.

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