Chop wood
Carry water

I heard that message in a meditation today and I’m doing my best. My nervous system is a wreck, a jangly mess of tangled wires and antennae picking up signals from everyone around me and bouncing them back and forth like a pinball machine. I spent most of yesterday in tears, and when I wasn’t crying, I was working in the yard, schlepping heavy pavers and bags of sand in an attempt to shunt some of that energy out of my body.

Make breakfast like a prayer

I heard that in my head this morning when I was walking the dogs, trying to stay present and remembering how damn hard it is to just do what I’m doing when I’m doing it with every fiber of my being. My brain wants to jump ahead to problem-solve and make lists and let my body navigate the daily dog walk. It’s a struggle to force myself to feel the ground beneath my feet, take in the cool breeze on my skin, smell the neighbor’s jasmine blooming, watch the crows hop from place to place on the wires above us.

Chop wood
Carry water

My friend Susan used to say that to me when I was a kid and I was freaking out. I don’t honestly remember if I ignored it, rebelled against it, rolled my eyes, or took it in, but somewhere it lodged itself in my body so it could come back out today when I needed reminding. And as hard as it is, the moment I start doing it, I can feel my nervous system calm down. Walking up the stairs to get a load of laundry, I repeat silently

chop wood

carry water

with the rhythm of my breath. When my mind starts to drift, I note that I am gathering laundry and I focus on how my leg muscles feel as I go down each stair, how the muscles in my forearm feels when I turn the doorknob to the laundry room, what my core feels like as I bend at the waist to push the clothes in the washing machine.

The hamster-wheel part of my brain is back there somewhere worrying that I am moving too slowly, that I won’t get everything done.

Make breakfast like a prayer

My friend Jen says that and I do my best. Slicing potatoes, cutting chunks of sausage, watching the egg yolk and white swirl together as I whip them. Sitting down, I focus on the taste of a perfectly crisp bite of potato and marvel at how often I shove food in without really experiencing it. The hamster squeaks at me that I’m being ridiculous and clichè.

But there is more air in my chest and belly. My jaw is relaxed. My limbs soft and comfortable. And by 10:30, I have walked the dogs, started two loads of laundry, eaten breakfast, helped my daughter navigate buying her parking permit with the city clerk, watered all the plants, cleaned and decluttered the kitchen countertop, and connected with three different dear ones via text.

It is enough.
The hamster is still spinning, but he is not yelling at me anymore. There are a lot of things left to do today, and I am reminded of something another strong, wise woman once said to me:

there will be enough time for all of the things that matter

She said this to me years ago, like Susan, and I wanted desperately to believe it then. I’ve heard it echo in my head often since then and she is right. It is amazing to me that I never believed that, or even considered that it could be true until she said it, but once she did, I began to trust it.

The things I accomplish today are the things that will be important to accomplish. One step at a time.

this breath in
this breath out

So many wise, simple phrases from so many wise women in my life. And each one of them calms me, centers me, puts me squarely in the middle of a place that feels held in abundance, connected to an energy that fuels me. I am grateful. Nothing has changed outside of me – there is still pain and chaos and uncertainty and suffering. What has changed is that I know my work is to chop wood, carry water, make breakfast like a prayer, believe that there is always enough time for the things that matter.  This breath in. This breath out.

My dad loved cars. He loved old cars, classic cars, any car he ever owned. He loved washing and waxing them, tinkering in the engine, driving. Everything about them.

He taught me how to change the oil and air filters in my car. How to change a tire and check the air pressure and how to calculate my gas mileage. He was often disgusted at the state of the inside of my car, and he was positively purple the night I drove my car off a cliff in the pouring rain by accident.

I loved that car. It was a 1979 Datsun 210 hatchback and I could fit more people in there than you’d think. After I drove it off the cliff, he had it towed to town and ultimately to his place, 140 miles away, and even though it wasn’t worth it, he found someone who could put it back together for me. I drove it for several more years and took really good care of it.

The car I had after the Datsun finally died was maybe the worst car I’ve ever had. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy a car that was made the first year the car company ever existed. Give them time to work the kinks out. I was proud of it because it was the first car I bought all by myself, but it was a 1986 Hyundai Excel and it was a piece of junk. It only took a couple years before fifth gear didn’t work. A month or two more and fourth gear died. I still drove it to and from work because my commute on I-405 was so slow that I didn’t really need to get beyond third gear. But when the transmission dropped reverse, I started to worry. I got by for a while, parking on hills and only parallel parking in huge spots where I could go head-in.

The next car I had that I really, really loved was also the first truly brand new car I owned – my Ford Ranger King Cab. Fire engine red, four-wheel drive, five speed. My then-husband thought I was nuts. He grew up on a farm, driving combine and nothing but trucks, so when we moved to Seattle and he got a job at a tech firm, he couldn’t wait to buy himself a little Honda Civic. He turned his back on trucks forever – distancing himself from his days as a farm boy.

I loved that truck. I sat up higher than most cars on the road and driving a manual transmission was always my preference. We could use it to haul the second-hand furniture we bought for the house, or dirt for the yard. Groceries sat in the king cab, safe from rainy days. I felt powerful in that truck. And I was sad when I had to say goodbye to it because I got pregnant and the king cab was no place for a baby’s car seat. After Baby 1 and Baby 2 came a Volvo and a minivan. Sigh.

But when the minivan had outlived it’s usefulness, I got Sparky. Sparky was a 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and he was such a great car. Big enough to haul six kids, or five plus the dog, and not a gas guzzler at all. Sparky became known as the Party Bus when my girls were in middle school and I drove through Woodinville, Kirkland, Bellevue and Mercer Island, picking up girls along the way to take to school in Seattle. Sparky’s glove compartment was always full of pretzels, granola bars, fruit and napkins for the long ride to and from school. I took a car load of girls to Astoria for the weekend on a field trip, sat in a ferry line for six and a half hours with my daughters and two pups, and listened to countless hours of kid music in that car.

When I bought my electric car last year, Sparky became the girls’ car – solid, cheap to insure and drive, and a bit gutless. And last Friday, Sparky took one for the team, absorbing the impact of another car t-boning him, and protecting my girl and her boyfriend. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive, and it’s time to say goodbye.

As I cleaned him out today, grabbing a blanket and a pack of gum, a coffee mug and the registration papers, I saw the old metal First Aid kit beneath the driver’s seat. Dad gave me that battered box, full of everything I might need should I get in to an accident – band-aids, gauze, alcohol wipes, scissors, flares, a space blanket, and more – when I got that Datsun 210 back in 1987. It has sat in every car I’ve ever owned and been used many times when kids cut or scratched themselves or simply needed something for their headache. I slid it out and settled it in to the rental car I’m driving for now and felt the tears come.

I am so grateful that Lola and her boyfriend are ok and that Sparky cushioned the blow. I am so sad to see him go and while it feels silly to cry over a car, it’s also true that there are so many memories that are conjured up when I think about him. So much laughter, road trips, rides with stinky dogs. I guess maybe I inherited some of Dad’s love of cars, even if I haven’t changed my own oil in a couple decades.

I want to say it started the day E got home from college, but the truth is, it began somewhere back in October. I’m a stocking-stuffer fiend, to say the least. I start collecting things early – a small face mask someone said they loved, an ornament that will encapsulate the achievements of the last year, a pair of fuzzy socks just perfect for lounging. There are not many things that give me more of a jolt of joy than finding a tiny trinket that I can tuck away for Christmas for my girls.

Over the years, I’ve collected other kids, too. My daughters’ friends who hang out at the kitchen counter and snack, do homework, play games – I listen to their stories and sometimes when I’m out wandering, I find something small that will give them a laugh or let them know I’m happy to have them in my life by extension.

Those kitchen-counter gatherings happened less this fall while E was far away at school, so when she came back in mid-December, the volume of extra teenagers in the house more than doubled. Having more mouths to feed, more laughter, and more noise in my house is bliss. I don’t even have to adjust the amount of food I cook, because thanks to my great-grandmother, I am incapable of cooking for less than five or six people at a time, anyway. There are just fewer leftovers and more midnight raids on the fridge, more smiles and a few more dishes and a lot more glee in my life.

By the time the solstice rolled around, my heart was full. And even though the girls had gone with their dad for a few days, I had a lunch date with good friends and had prepared myself for the long, dark night and the letting go that comes with the winter solstice. I knew exactly what I wanted to release and I needed the dark and the quiet and the stillness to crystallize my thoughts and intentions. I lit candles, breathed deeply, formed pictures in my mind of just what it would mean to help myself be lighter. I imagined the weight and heft and color of the burden I’ve been carrying, nurturing, feeding, and by the time midnight rolled around, I had it cornered in my body and knew just how much space it inhabited. I blew out the candles and let go, seeing it disperse in to a million tiny fragments as though propelled with a giant wave rippling out, out, out. I’ll never be free of it, but having the bits and pieces spread throughout my body lessens the weight and impact. Instead of feeling it tight and heavy in my chest, I can let each of the bits be part of something larger in their own way. I woke up feeling lighter, free.

Over the following days, I spent time with dear friends and family. I saw my mom, my best friend, my brother and sister, an old friend who has known me since seventh grade whose history is both intertwined with mine and divergent. I was blessed with open arms and love and amazingly easy travel conditions. There were hugs and sweet moments of recognition as precious gifts were exchanged. Tears of joy and connection as we looked at each other and knew; we are holding each other, we see each other, we honor each other.

The date, the day of the week – it never mattered. Was it Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? I still struggle to place myself in a calendar because there are still gifts to be opened in the living room, the fridge is full of delicious food, there are forthcoming plans with friends over the next few days. My house and heart will continue to be filled up with conversation and laughter.

Even as I prepared for the ritual of the solstice, I wasn’t sure it would work. I didn’t know if I could let go of something that I know will continue to trigger me for a long time to come. And in the days following, when I was, indeed, triggered, I braced myself even as I realized I was doing better. The blow didn’t come as hard, sink as deep, or leave a bruise that my mind and heart worried over in the hours following. Letting go had worked. Somehow, I was able to use the darkness to align my heart and my head with my values and intentions and it feels as though the light hours – even though they are shorter – have more room for love and laughter. And I’m using every last second to soak up my girls and their friends and the moments with loved ones. It truly does feel like the most wonderful time of the year.

One year ago today, I was surrounded by a group of amazing women who helped move Eve and Lola and I in to our new home. They packed boxes, cleaned cupboards, organized movers, found screwdrivers, and held me up during an incredibly difficult time. The transition from a life I loved and knew and assumed I’d always have to a mostly blank canvas felt simultaneously frightening and exciting, awfully sad and tinged with possibility. I was able to experience the full range of emotion precisely because of these women who showed up, who loved me and my daughters, and who helped me feel safe.

I am so incredibly grateful and so lucky to have such people in my life.

In my previous life, there had been lots of dinner parties and events – many occasions to host friends and family and fill the house with laughter and great food.

In the last year, I’ve hosted scores of the girls’ friends for both impromptu study sessions/girls’ nights and planned Halloween or New Year’s gatherings, but I’ve not felt like I was quite ready to host something on my own for grown ups. Until now.

It wasn’t supposed to be a housewarming party, but it turns out that this morning, my new home feels properly “warmed.” Last night, I hosted a house concert as a fund raiser for Eat With Muslims, an organization started by two women in Seattle to try and build community and understanding of Muslim culture and individuals who are Muslim using food (brilliant!). Sheryl Wiser, a local singer-songwriter suggested that we do it as part of her Pies + Persistence project that raises money for nonprofits who are working for social justice and human rights in the face of this current Presidential administration’s often horrific policies. She would play music, and Lola (who has been working furiously on her own original music for over a year) would open the performances with three of her songs.

We put out the word on social media and via email and the house filled up with amazing salads, deli trays, the most delicious Somalian chicken and rice dish I have had in my lifetime, and cranberry pie (tart). So many of us didn’t know each other when the evening started, but the conversation never lagged and the plates were never empty. We sat and stood around the kitchen island laughing and telling each other about our lives and when it came time to sit for music, my heart was full. My house was full of people ranging in age from teens to 70+, enjoying each others’ company with the dogs weaving their way around the room sniffing for scraps.

The music was beautiful and heartfelt and mesmerizing, and people stayed afterward to continue chatting and laughing. When I fell in to bed just before midnight, I was grinning from ear to ear. I can’t think of a better way to flood our new home with love and positive energy than by gathering a group of people for food and music to support the hard work of women making a difference one dinner party at a time.

This life, it is a joyful one. There are good people in our midst doing amazing things. I can’t wait to throw another party.

Image: Low row of bricks alongside a sidewalk

On the sidewalk in North Chicago, just outside a large, upscale grocery store, Lola and I walked past a woman about my age building this brick wall. She was likely homeless, had a disposable plastic shopping bag filled with her own homemade mortar – newspaper bits, water, mud and other things only she knows – and was bent over stacking bricks and patting the mortar. Nobody challenged her, and she spoke to no one.

The next day as I walked to the El station, she was nowhere to be found, but I noted her progress and wondered whether she’d be back or if she ran out of materials or energy or drive to do more. I wondered whether she was trying to wall someone out or someone in, or if she was making herself a place to sit up off of the ground, or if she was simply creating, making something with her hands that made her feel productive.

I like to think it is the latter.

Even after all the therapy and reading and journaling and work I’ve done to counteract the cultural and familial narratives I’ve ingested for the last 47 years, it takes effort to remember that not everything I do has to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t have to garner a paycheck or be in service to some bigger societal machine. It can simply be me using the materials I have available to me to create, to follow my heart and instincts and do what I do best and love most.

Lola, Eve and I spent the last week in Chicago, exploring, walking, shopping, and moving Eve in to her freshman dorm room. It was, by turns, uplifting, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and hilarious. These two sisters have their own secret language such that they can read each other’s emotions and rush in like a bubbling spring of water to fill in the holes, buoy the other, amplify the laughter. They know when to be quiet, when to lighten the mood with a carefully placed insult, when to link arms and raise an eyebrow to show support. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. So many times in the last week, I sat across a table from them or followed a few steps behind on the sidewalk and felt my heart swell at my good fortune. I get to be part of this.

We complained about the humidity (it was really gross – Pacific Northwesterners aren’t built for that much warm moisture), people-watched, got makeovers at Bloomingdale’s on a whim. We sat on a beach at Lake Michigan and marveled as a swarm of dragonflies swooped around in a cluster, creating their own mini-hurricane near the shore. We laughed and ate and filled an entire shopping cart at Target with hangers and laundry soap and bedding and school supplies.

I had one on one time with each of them; watching Glee with Eve late in to the night, sprawled on the couch, talking about nothing and everything. Lola and I hit five thrift stores in one day and ate tacos in the sunshine, simultaneously wishing we were home and dreading saying goodbye to her sister.

By the time the two of us settled in to our seats on the plane for the trip home, we linked arms, tipped our heads onto each others’ shoulders, and sobbed. One of the three legs of our stool wasn’t coming home with us.

Upon our return home from Chicago, I was a little lost. To be honest, I still am. I know there are essays to be written and sold. I need to continue sending out my memoir manuscript if it is ever going to be published. I have an agent interested in seeing a book proposal for a manuscript I wrote years ago, so I could work on that. None of those things pay much, if anything. Neither does mothering. I’m a bit paralyzed – do I look for a job that does pay? What can I do that’s valuable and useful? What do I enjoy doing? What can I stand doing that pays?

There’s something in me that says to wait. Just give myself time to roll with this new phase – settle in to having one less chick in the nest and use my energy to support both my girls through this transition. I don’t often think about modern technology – even as much as I use it – but I am tremendously grateful for the ability to text my girls. It means that I can offer advice and insight no matter where I am, so that when Eve feels a tiny bit homesick or has a question about returning textbooks she purchased for a class she dropped, I’m ‘there.’ Because what I know is that I am a good mom, and relying on my strengths in that area feels good to all of us. The fact that the girls know they can ask me anything, anytime, and I’ll want to answer, jump at the chance to engage with them – that is immeasurably important to me. It is a constant for all of us, a reminder that we are a team and while the characteristics of our connections might change over time, the fact that there’s a connection there is a given. I don’t support them because I have to. There is no sense of duty there. I am truly overjoyed to be their travel companion, sounding board, keeper of memories. I am using the bricks and mortar I have at my disposal to create something, and it may not look like much, but it is strong.

When I get caught up in the “but you’re not making any money” narrative in my head, I have to remember that I’m ok right now, that I do my best work when the work I’m doing is something I love and something I’m good at. And right now, the things I love most of all are mothering and writing. In that order. Today, that’s good enough. Better than good enough. It’s great. Amazing. Phenomenal.

I am often astonished at how much less I write here than I used to, and for a while, I attributed it to the speed of life. There have been so many changes – substantive changes – in my life in the last two years that I can barely keep up.

For a while, I was trying to peg some freelance writing work to the news cycle – writing about depression when Kate Spade was discovered to have committed suicide and realizing that by the time I wrote my piece it was Anthony Bourdain that was in the news and by the time I heard back from an editor, the world was talking about North Korea and then the next school shooting and then family separations at the border.

Funny how much that felt like my life.

Separation after 23 years of marriage followed by (or in the midst of) my oldest daughter’s senior year in high school with the attendant college preparation/final Homecoming/Prom/graduation. Searching for an alternative to the youngest daughter’s school and finding the Running Start program that allows her to enroll in community college in lieu of finishing at her high school followed by divorce and moving to a new home. Watching my mom descend further in to herself and trying to help arrange for her move to a long-term facility and preparing to help my daughter now move across the country for college.

The speed of life.

As I walked the dogs in the cool mist this morning, I realized that part of what has been weighing on me is a feeling of failure – that I am doing so many things and none of them very well. I’ve sold some writing, but not enough to live on. I bought a new house and there are still pieces of furniture where I don’t want them and the outdoor space isn’t as inviting as I want it to be. I don’t cook as often as I used to and I am afraid I’m not showing up for my girls in the way they want me to.

But when I took a moment to really say those words in my own head – to bring them out of the shadows where they play havoc with my heart – I realized that I’ve actually done a pretty damn good job in the last two years simply by putting one foot in front of the other. The fact that I’ve sold any writing, finished my manuscript, bought and sold a house, navigated the end of a decades-long marriage, and managed to stay upright and kind and tell my girls every damn day that I love them is almost a miracle. If I’ve failed in any way, it was a failure to accurately assess what my future was going to look like, and I think it’s a human trait to be pretty bad at that kind of prediction, isn’t it? By making an effort to stay grounded in who I am and what’s important to me and focusing on the next best step, I’ve strung together quite a path thus far, so while the news cycle of my life is still hurtling along at a fairly fast clip, I know it won’t always be like this. I’m just going to hold on and keep doing what I’ve been doing for the next little while and believe in my own abilities.

The house I am staying in is on a spit of land with a westward view of a bay and another spit of land. All day long, I could sit on the deck and watch the birds – gulls, heron, eagles, ducks – fish and splash and swim in the shallow, sandy bay. And just beyond it, on that other long finger of land, cars and trucks come and go, with the occasional knot of bicyclists and the rare jogger. There are no homes (yet) on that slim finger that is just to the west of where I am, but this morning, I woke to the bones of a crane just forming through the fog, so I know it is only a matter of time.
            There are homes in the webbing of the finger, though, the crotch of land that connects that spit to this one, and they are huddled close together with some clusters of wind-sculpted evergreen trees. Sitting on the deck this morning, peering through the thick mist, I am pleased that I can see far enough in front of me to watch the gulls scoop up clams, fly 40 feet up into the sky, and drop them on the rocks beneath to reveal their soft insides. Breakfast. I squint to see the houses just to the west and wonder if, from their vantage point, it is as foggy and grey as it seems to me from here, or whether they, too, have a clear visual field in front of them and I just can’t tell. Optics. 

            I wonder if we all assume that our vantage point is the Right one. From here, I think those homes are cloaked in fog and mist. I imagine looking out the window of one of those homes to see nothing but grey. But maybe that’s not accurate. 
            This morning it is so quiet that I can hear the flapping of the gulls’ wings as they rise out of the water. It is the sound of effort, of forward motion, and it prompts me to tighten the muscles of my belly as though I, too, am rising, pulsing my arms to lift myself. I think about how satisfying it feels to be tensing muscles, using my own strength to move. If I could think this way all the time, I would be better at going to the gym. I would have less cellulite and more stamina. Maybe what I need is to live someplace with this view all the time – watching these animals work to live in a gorgeous place. All of their movements purposeful. I am the kind of person for whom going to the gym feels artificial and contrived and there is little that makes me more aggravated than falsehood.

            Often, this morning, the peace is punctuated by gunshots. The first one came solo and prompted me to think that some angry gardener was dispatching one of the rabbits that outnumber people on this island. Perhaps he finally got tired of sharing his bounty with the fat bunnies feasting on his labor and leaving droppings in every patch of grass available. Gunshots are nearly always associated with ‘he’ in my mind. I know that there are women who shoot guns. Women who garden and get annoyed. And it’s not unimaginable in this place where yesterday I saw packs of dirt-stained children wrestling in open areas, wandering up to strangers to talk and pet their dogs, women with three or four of their own tagging along – none of whom are old enough to go to school quite yet. It’s not beyond imagination to expect one of them to sit down and bare her breast to a child who is tall enough to stand next to her and feed. That is the kind of island this is – hippies, home-schoolers, people who want to live away from the city. These women can do anything. I can tell. But it is hard for me to reconcile the peaceniks with gunshots. I know that is my own limitation. I accept it. I don’t know if I’ll work to unravel it or not. Right now, I am more interested in why the gunshots are increasing – now coming in groups of three or four. Who is shooting? What are they shooting? Why? 

My real desire is for them to stop. I’d like to slip back in to the stillness where the only sound is the beating of the birds’ wings as they lift off of the water or the swoosh it makes when they skid into the bay and touch down.

My girls are getting older and now that Lola is in high school, I’ve really been hit with the knowledge that they are strong, capable young women who are reaching for independence. It’s a delicate balance for me as their mom, to let them stretch themselves and to keep reminding them that I am here if they want me – for adventures or to vent, as a shoulder to cry on or just someone to hang out with on the rare evening they don’t have other plans.

I remember that desperate need to be on my own, to prove that I could do it myself, to peel off from my family and firmly attach myself to my friend-tribe. When I left for college, I came home so rarely, convinced that the new family I had created was so much better, so much more fun and supportive. And in some ways, they were, but there is something powerful about that other tribe – the one that shares my history, that remembers who I was all those years ago (and loves me anyway).

Last weekend, Lola and I traveled to the central coast of California to hang out with that tribe, my mom’s siblings and their spouses and kids. And even though Mom couldn’t be there with us, it felt like coming home. Looking around the table to see faces that are so familiar, hear laughter that I remember deep in my bones from years past, was grounding in a way I can’t really describe. I loved the opportunity to remind Lola that she is part of this group whether she wants to be or not. There is a special mix of nurturing and support, loud hilarity and not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously that has been there ever since I can remember. This group has weathered major storms over the years and come out smiling because they do it together. No matter the brand of tragedy, there is a set-your-jaw-and-roll-up-your-sleeves mentality that doesn’t back down and doesn’t forget that in the midst of all of it, there is joy to be found. This is a group that doesn’t shy away from the full range of emotions available to us (sometimes swinging from one to the other with dizzying speed), all the while holding on tightly to each and every other member of the family. And it’s a group whose definition of family extends beyond bloodlines to include others who are deeply loved and abide by the rule of having each others’ backs.

While I really wish Eve had been able to join us, I came away knowing that we will do this again soon and I’ll bring her along because I think that this is the perfect time for both of my girls to be reminded that there is a strong, smart, compassionate, funny-as-hell group of people who will always be there for them, who are rooting for them as they spread their wings and head out into the world to do whatever it is they decide to do. I know that I have always felt grateful to be able to rely on the absolute bedrock of this family to both hold me up when times were tough and make me laugh until I pee – sometimes simultaneously.

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression
throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way
to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection
than the average person.
Fortunately, during some intense research I was doing on
adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of
gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most
challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether
that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet
out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind
would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had
in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking
patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a
short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort
of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.
In the beginning, it was often hard to come up with a list;
not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an
innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it
to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a
friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels
trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.
Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’
things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or
for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am
nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my
depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic
nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up
with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to
be grateful for.
When my teenage daughter was struggling with anxiety upon
starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if
it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for
which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My
hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her
up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for
the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was
grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over
time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened
during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being
picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to
appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective
shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed
to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of
competence and groundedness.
Over time, my definition of gratitude has developed and I’ve
come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective
for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting
with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life
to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or
that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be
worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”),
I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me
my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious.
Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that
one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just
dodging a bullet.
If I am making a mental note of the number of “good” things
in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful
gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a
positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often
intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about
the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the
challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice
that there are many positive things in my life, too.
The human brain is wired to look for deficiencies, expect
sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing
– often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things
better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I
won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all
around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but
I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and
happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming
along nicely.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing,
though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned
in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am
grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify
things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop
and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write
and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a
glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of
dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and
thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can
keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure
gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.

Knowing that every time I actively look for things that are
right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce
serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice
all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring
my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it
does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that
give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more
able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of
letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.
Last Thursday, I gave myself permission to take a hot bath.
In the middle of the day. With piles of laundry yet to be washed, a dog that desperately
wanted a walk, and a dinner plan yet to be determined.  I ran a deep, hot bath, added a few
drops of lavender essential oil, lit a candle, and stepped in. 
The tub is set in the corner of the room with large windows
framing two sides, frosted below for privacy, and open to the sky on top.  Lying back, I could see a triangle of
roof with the downspout attached, a few bare tree branches, and grey sky.  We have enjoyed a lot of sunshine in
the last week and temperatures in the upper 50s, but today was grey with
spitting rain and that soft light that makes it impossible to tell what time of
day it is without consulting a clock. 
As I let my thoughts drift away a smile appeared on the
right side of my lips.  My nostrils
flared slightly and the left side of my mouth followed until I was positively
grinning.  For no reason. I hadn’t
just remembered something funny or sweet or thought about something exciting in
the near future.  I just
smiled. 
As I pondered this strange, unprompted grin, I recalled
something my nine-year-old said to me once. And I finally understood what she
meant. 
When she said it, we were leaving the hospital after having
just paid a visit to her favorite teacher.  Mrs. H had suffered a severe bout of pain and dizziness the
night before and was rushed to the ER and evaluated for a stroke.  She was disoriented and confused and,
at the time of our visit, still in some measure of discomfort.  And the doctors had no real answers.  Despite that, she was delighted to see
Lola and I walk in to her room and she immediately squeezed us both tightly and
began talking in her rushed, irreverent way.  The three of us were laughing within minutes and Lola
perched on the side of the hospital bed with Mrs. H’s arm draped over her.  We bounced from topic to topic, dipping
our toes in the waters of concern, but mostly skipping lightly around school,
pets, and things we were looking forward to.  When Mrs. H began to get tired, Lola and I left, promising
to check back later in the day.
As we walked down the hospital corridor, I began to feel a
bit melancholy.  I caught glimpses
of other patients, lying in bed asleep with mouths agape, struggling to get out
of bed, pushing IV poles down the hallway as they steadied themselves against a
nurse or a loved-one.  I thought
about Mrs. H and all she has meant to us and our family over the years and
found myself sending an urgent wish out to the Universe that she heal quickly
and completely.  I was lost in my
own thoughts until I felt Lola’s bouncing gait next to me and looked at her.
She was half-walking, half-skipping down the hall, bopping
her head from shoulder to shoulder and singing a little song under her
breath.  Her eyes twinkled with
mischief and she wore a huge grin.
“What are you so happy about, little one?” I asked, relieved.
I had originally resisted bringing her, worried that it might upset her to see
her beloved teacher sick or in pain.
Lola stopped mid-stride, cocked her head up at me in
confusion and let out a laugh.
“Mom. You don’t need any reason at all to be happy. You need
a reason to be sad or upset or angry, but you can be happy just because you’re
happy.” 
I laughed, too, thinking that it was such a “Lola” thing to
say. She truly believes it. She lives it.
It wasn’t until today in the bathtub that it sank in for
me.  As the smile crept across my
face, the first thought I had was, ‘what
are you smiling about?’
  The
answer that came to me first was, ‘Nothing.
And everything.

I don’t need a reason
to be happy.’

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I am reposting it here so readers can find it.