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.

Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? I like this exercise in perspective, because it’s an easy way to remind ourselves that we always have a choice. But I’ve recently begun to evolve my thoughts on this common allegory.

It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes…) that said: It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable. 

I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas – black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with “there are two kinds of people: those who….” I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.

To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.

But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to  lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don’t want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can’t be altered or ‘fixed,’ and then what do we do with the glass?

My mom has Alzheimer’s and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn’t refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn’t mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace – the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.

It occurs to me that our bodies and minds weren’t  made to hold on to emotion. Nor were they made to reject it.

More and more, I think that the best method of experiencing emotions is the same way our bodies were made to digest food. We take it in, let it trace a path through the body where the pieces we need to utilize for repair and sustenance are extracted, and the rest is eliminated.

Too often, we treat emotions as something that we need to control and manipulate, but I think we’re going about it all wrong. At least, most of us are.

Lola has the right idea. She is a natural at simply ‘digesting’ her emotions. She lets them come, acknowledges them, sits still while they make their way through whatever process they go through, and extracts what she needs from them – whether it’s something she’s learned or a closeness she feels with someone important.

There are others in my life who I see become constipated, holding on to the emotion or the story it conjures in their heads, letting it affect them in ways that are profound and lasting. They either wall off the emotions and prevent themselves from seeing the benefits, or they gain some of the benefit, but then become embittered and embrace a victimhood that allows the unpleasant, dysfunctional parts of the situation to remain without being removed.

And there are still others who are bulimic – rejecting certain emotions or situations violently by purging the emotion or denying the feelings conjured up. In this scenario, the individual is ultimately denying themselves the learning and growth that comes from processing difficult emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of hurt and struggle and their place in it.

Without allowing our bodies and minds to fully process what we are feeling in any given situation, we fail to learn that, in every challenging scenario, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a way to walk through pain and struggle, sadness and grief and suffering, and come out the other end a stronger, wiser person. But not if we become constipated or deny the reality of the situation altogether.

I am absolutely guilty of doing both of these things from time to time, and even if I do my best to process emotions like Lola, I can find it hard to not try to drive the process and make it fit my own timeline. But I’m learning that, like digesting my food, my body and mind have their own way of working with what I’m presented with, mining it for the good and letting go of the rest, and it is in my own best interest to simply let the process happen. I admit I’ve struggled a little with what that might look like, and the best conclusion I’ve come to thus far is to simply be mindful of the feelings and hold space for them, knowing that I can’t possibly predict how long it will take or how impactful it will be.

By Kurt Baty – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I know that, and yet, there is still something so appealing about believing that the world is black and white, that things are either good or bad, and so are people. It is both efficient in terms of time (I can decide whom or what to invest my energy in and when to walk away) and emotionally satisfying (no agonizing over the minutiae, just make a judgment and move on).

And it’s rarely true. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only things that are black and white are those two crayons in the box. (Don’t get me wrong: there are some things that, in my mind, are Absolutely Wrong and I will continue to acknowledge the nuances within, and still condemn the behavior.)

I am a social-justice-minded person. I have strong values and strong opinions and I love fighting for space for those without it, hearing new voices, expanding my view of the world. And sometimes, I read about something in the news and let the ethical warrior side of me take over. I re-post things and sign petitions and vow to boycott companies and sometimes, that feels like the exact right thing to do in terms of aligning my behavior with my values. But sometimes I get conflicted.

Like when scandals come up involving giant companies like Uber. While I went along with the suggestions to delete the app from my phone and vow to use other rideshare companies when the news came out about the CEO’s reprehensible behavior and choices that don’t support my values, I was still a little worried. Mostly because I thought about the drivers – the vast majority of whom I’ve ridden with that are pleasant and professional and friendly. The drivers who are working in this flexible gig-economy world because they have other jobs and obligations that don’t fit in with an 8-5 job. Maybe they’re going to school or parenting or taking care of their aging parents. Perhaps they don’t speak English well enough yet to get another type of job or this is the thing they’re doing while they train for a better job. Maybe they’re retired and on a fixed income and this is the way they put aside a little money in case of emergency. Doesn’t my boycotting the company they work for impact them more than it impacts the CEO, at least percentage-wise? He’s already a millionaire. Maybe losing some revenue will affect his company’s bottom line a bit and perhaps his ego will take a big blow, but for the driver who depends on every paycheck, I may be creating more hardship for them than their employer does.

Two weeks ago, I saw a message on a Facebook group I’m part of (a FB group that is all about supporting and empowering women), asking if anyone would be interested in joining a day-long women’s empowerment and employment event to provide a breakout session workshop. They were specifically looking for content that centered around wellness and well-being and self care. I was hooked.  After a few emails, I realized that the event was being put on for women who are Uber drivers in Seattle and I admit to having a twinge of discomfort. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this event centered around helping these women, who are mostly part-time drivers, understand the gig economy a little better and enabling them to find other ways to get into it to support themselves. Uber’s partner for this event is a local organization called Tabor 100, an “association of entrepreneurs and business advocates who are committed to economic power, educational excellence and social equality for African-Americans and the community at large.”

Whoa.

I signed up. Other breakout sessions included one that helped women envision their own paths as entrepreneurs or career growth, one dedicated entirely to self-care, and another that helped women learn to manage and grow their wealth. They provided a beautiful continental breakfast, a full lunch, free headshots by professional photographers, and the opportunity to get your business certified with the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. Oh, and childcare. Full. Day. Childcare. For free.

This day was truly about empowering women to be part of the sharing economy in a way that works for them, with a ton of information about the opportunities that are out there as well as tips and tricks to more fully engage in those opportunities. My workshop centered on using mindfulness to ground yourself in your values, create personal boundaries, and find joy everywhere you go.

I vowed to go in with an open mind and I came out with a full heart. This is the kind of company (at least the Seattle version of it) that I can say I’m proud to have been associated with, even for just one day. This was not some gimmick to show the world that Uber is a friendly company and win back shareholders. I don’t even know that it was widely publicized. This was an honest attempt to acknowledge the employees of this company, remind them how important they are, and help lift them up.

So, it’s complicated. I reinstalled my app because I hope to see some of these women on the road soon and get to know them a little better.

I spent the last two days at a Mindfulness Research Conference and my brain is full. I dreamt about mindfulness last night. Don’t ask me to describe it because it doesn’t make much sense, but trust me when I say it will be several days before all of the information I received filters down through the recesses of my brain and begins to create a clear picture. I was left with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of the people who are doing such good work to uncover which practices and paradigms are the most effective. People doing work on a shoestring budget in the face of resistance to the idea that this is a science, in the face of challenges like racism and ablism and a culture that doesn’t embrace relationships between people as much as it embraces the power of money. More than once, I found myself breaking out in goosebumps as I listened to these brilliant, fierce, heart-centered folks present their work. Whew.

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I had ample opportunity to quietly reflect on the last two days. I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.

This is mindfulness. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. This is mindfulness.

Noticing that word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response
Was I really angry? Yes.
Why? Fear.
The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway. 
Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger. 
Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.
I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. This is mindfulness. 
All of this happened in the space of about 90 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop. 
This is mindfulness. 
I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others. I suspect this is only one of the ripple effects the last two days will have and while it is invisible to most people, it will certainly impact how I show up in the world. 

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris’ words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven’t sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here’s the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this – I deserve this. It’s been a long day. Or – It’s a pretty small vice and I don’t do it every night. 


More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn’t had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I’m sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want – to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy – and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty – I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I’m working on won’t see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I’ll do with them or where I will put them. I’ll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have – like publishing credits or a wine cellar that’s full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I’ve walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I’m in the water, that’s my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I’m able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don’t have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

I fixed the salt cellar this morning. It wasn’t terribly
complicated, but it took a little bit of ingenuity and some focus and a real
desire to have it fixed. I made it last year at one of those paint-your-own-ceramic
workshops. Eve and I were having a mom-daughter day and I decided the last
thing our cupboards needed was another coffee mug, so I chose this ceramic salt
container with a rubber flange on the lid to keep it air tight and Eve pronounced it “cute,” which is an enormous compliment coming from a 16-year old
girl who is your daughter.
It lasted about a week
before the wooden lid came loose from the part with the rubber seal and Lola decided shove it farther down inside rather than trying to pry it loose. This
resulted in the container being full of salt beneath part of the lid that was
firmly stuck halfway down, and no way to remove it. We left it like that for
months, filling the upper part of the container with salt and calling it good.
But this morning as I
stood over a pan of hash browns, imagining what it is going to be like to pack
Mom’s stuff up and move her to memory care in the next week or so, I took on a
project I thought I could fix. As tears tracked slowly down my cheeks, I
contemplated what it would take to pry the lid out. I started by running a
sharp knife around the edge of the rubber, hoping to ease it loose, but abandoned
that after imagining the knife slipping out and slicing my finger. Next, I got
a corkscrew and tried to drive it into the center of the wood to get ahold of
it and lift up, but the wood was too dense. When I went to the junk drawer to
get a screwdriver and screw, I heard Dad’s voice in my head, telling me this
was the ticket.
I screwed it in until
it just took hold and then grabbed the vice grips, stopping for a second to
wonder how many other households have a pair of vice grips in the kitchen drawer
and mentally patting myself on the back for my cleverness. I clamped them over
the top of the screw and gently rocked the vice grips back and forth until the
lid slid up and out.
I flipped Eve’s hash
browns to crisp up on the other side, put the tools away and grabbed the
superglue. Within minutes, the potatoes were on a plate and the two halves of
the lid were tightly bonded back together. I washed out the salt cellar, refilled
it with fresh salt, and wiped down the counter.

When Eve came in to
eat, she opened it up, pinched out a bit of salt, and sprinkled it on her
potatoes. She didn’t even notice that it was fixed. Par for the course with a
teenager in the morning, I suppose, but it didn’t diminish either my sense of
pride or the immense feeling of relief I had that I had found something I could
accomplish today.

To say that things have been tension-filled in my life lately would be a gross understatement. I won’t go in to details – partially because I don’t really want to see it all sitting together in one, organized list of things that I’m challenged with, and partially because I don’t want to give the struggles too much power. I’m maintaining a balance by remembering to start every day with a list of things for which I’m grateful and by playing with my new puppies a lot (side note: I don’t truly understand why snuggling something fluffy and soft is so soothing, but I do fully appreciate it). When I remember to, I carve out time to exercise and check in with friends and run a hot bath.

But last Wednesday I had one of those days. Despite all my (herculean) efforts to craft a workable plan for the day, things went awry. I had known for months that this particular day was going to be logistically challenging on many different levels and I did my best to cross all of my t’s and dot all of my i’s, but I still couldn’t plan for every contingency. And I couldn’t have known what other emotional things would be lurking in the background, so despite the fact that the day was supposed to be filled with activities that were generative and collaborative and working toward something I am passionate about, I was a bit anxious and split-minded.

And then, during the first morning break, I saw I had a voice mail from an unknown number and when I listened to it, my anxiety ratcheted up four levels.

By lunch time, my chest was tight, my shoulders were hunched up near my earlobes, my heart was racing, palms sweaty, jaw clenched – all the hallmarks of a near panic attack. I left to grab some takeout and came close to bursting in to tears as I placed my order. I sucked air, swallowed hard, and sat on the cushioned bench to wait for my food. And then I remembered that while my mind can only be in the past or the future, my body can only be in the present moment. What my body was trying to tell me by freaking out was that I was hating this present reality. I didn’t want to be in this emotional place I was in. I was feeling overwhelmed.

That might sound like a “Duh” moment as opposed to a revelation, but let me tell you what happened next.

I articulated that very thing in my mind. I said to myself:
I do not want to be feeling this way right now.
I am really uncomfortable with all of this anxiety and the things going on in my life right now that are leading me to feel unhappy and stressed.
And there’s nowhere else I can be in this moment.


In that moment, the stress response left my body and the words floated in my head. It was as if, by giving myself permission to feel what I was feeling and acknowledging that it really sucked, the response moved from my body into my head and suddenly it wasn’t so unbearable. I had figured out how to soothe myself by recognizing that what I was going through was really hard, and that’s all it took to shift things. I finished the afternoon in a much clearer, calmer state. While none of the stressors had disappeared, it seems that they had agreed to move to the side once they were recognized and let me do what I had to do.

Since that moment, I’ve had a few other experiences where I was able to simply notice in my head that I was in a less than ideal situation without feeling it in my gut or my chest or my jaw. It is a pretty cool thing to be able to do and I’m under no illusion that I’ll be able to do this every time I feel anxious or stressed, but for now, it is a reminder that mindfulness works.

I know, another “Duh” moment. But even as someone who has practiced mindfulness for years, I am realizing that there are breakthrough moments where I can continue to learn more about my own responses to different scenarios just by going through the motions of things I’ve done a million times before. Even if I “know” something works, it is altogether different to feel it working in my own experience and I’m truly grateful for the progressive leaps like this because they help me remember that there is always more to learn.

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.
I was listening to a story on NPR the other day about
wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and one person who was being interviewed was
part of what they call a “mop-up” crew. These are the people who come in after
the fire is out and look for dead wood that might fall, trench areas that need
it, and look for parts that still might be smoldering.  In large forests, it’s fairly common for roots to be on fire quietly beneath the forest floor and spontaneously
erupt into new fires if the area isn’t checked thoroughly. It is these folks’ job to be hyper vigilant, to scan the terrain for danger. 
I feel like that’s my nervous system in a nutshell. The
original traumas were the raging wildfires that I worked to control and
extinguish, but there are still hotspots in places I haven’t looked and when
someone says or does something that triggers my original abandonment issues, I
am suddenly right back in the middle of that forest with a raging flare-up. Hello, PTSD. 
Despite all the work I’ve done in therapy and on my own,
learning to uncover my deepest insecurities and face them, sitting patiently
with my demons and learning to embrace them, combating the mean voice in my
head that says I’m worthless, there are still pockets of mess that I am occasionally
surprised to find. Somehow, I thought I took care of this, but there was one more tree with
smoldering roots just waiting for some oxygen to feed it. And oxygen feels like such a benign thing, right? Who is afraid of oxygen? Often, it is
as much a surprise to me as it is to the person who said or did whatever they
did, and as much as I’d like to be able to apologize for my massive response,
the fact remains that now I have a new
fucking fire to put out
. I wish I had the time to explain or assure you that it’s all going to be fine, but I don’t. I have to put on my helmet and boots and fireproof jacket and wade in because ignoring these small flares isn’t an option. 

There’s no way I have the time or resources to
send out a mop up crew to look for every possible spot that might flare up some
day. The most I can do is clear out the old dead undergrowth, set boundaries to
help me feel safe, and look those damn flames in the eye when they rise up. The
good news is that because I did the hard work to put out the original fires, it doesn’t take as much time or effort to quiet these smaller ones, and as long as I am completely honest and upfront with people about feeling triggered, I have done my part. 
Honestly, most of the time I go through life just admiring this forest of mine – wandering through its lush greenery and feeling blessed at the variety of things that grow there. I am so grateful to have come through those fires of my youth and be where I am today, and frankly, happy that I am in such a good place that I do get surprised when a flare-up happens. [That doesn’t mean that I’m not annoyed as hell when it does. My inner monologue goes a little like this: Really? What the hell? Didn’t we deal with this already? Who is the one in there that keeps flipping the switch? I told you, we’re not in danger anymore. This is different.]
But these days, I can quickly move from frustration to compassion. Obviously, there’s someone in there who is still afraid, who remembers all too well what it meant to be engulfed in flames, and she is hollering for help. And that’s when I go into mop up mode.