A Different Gratitude


I’ve been feeling unusually grateful lately because I’ve come to realize I have just about the best husband, family, and group of friends a woman could want. But yesterday, I had an experience that humbled me, and made me feel a different kind of gratitude.

My friend Katie and I planned to meet up at Starbucks. I was running early because I expected traffic to be worse than it was. She was running a little behind. So I sat on a couch and fiddled with my phone while I waited for her. An older black woman shuffled in. She moved slowly, carried two reusable grocery bags full of stuff, and wore two hospital bands on her wrists. The weather had been just above freezing and rainy for over 24 hours, and she had clearly been out in it. She asked if the couch across from me was taken, took a seat, and at a fast food sandwich from one of her bags.

When Katie arrived and went to order her coffee, the woman asked me if she could use my phone to make a call. She told me the number, I dialed it for her, and she proceeded to talk on my phone for about 30 minutes while Katie and I sat and talked. She kept saying, “I am sick. I am tired. I need to heal.” She was asking people for money so she could stay in a hotel. When she finally got off the phone, I asked her if she was OK and if I could help her get somewhere like a shelter or a church where she might get assistance. She didn’t want to go to a shelter because they stole her clothes. She didn’t want to go to any churches either. She said they used to sometimes pay for a hotel room for her, but they wouldn’t anymore, and they told her not to come back. But she had a friend up Rt. 2 working at a cell phone store who said he could give her a few dollars. She was sure he wouldn’t give her a place to stay, but “every little bit counts,” she said.

If I were by myself, I probably would have wished her luck and gone on my way, but with Katie there, I felt a little braver. Katie’s a former public defender with the social skills and resources to connect with people in need, like this lady was. I offered the lady a ride to the cell phone store. She said she could’ve waited for the bus, but it would take a really long time and there are no shelters at most of the bus stops here. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it didn’t seem right for her to be standing around in the rain. So, we drove up Rt. 2 more than half way to Baltimore, and dropped her off at this cell phone store. She didn’t know if the guy there was going to actually give her any money. I did not offer to hang around in case he wasn’t even there or wouldn’t help her.

On the way there, she told us a little about her life. Her name is Linda. She says her mother hates her and stopped her from marrying the love of her life. When Katie asked if she was sick, Linda gave her her hospital release papers, which we didn’t read. We started talking about Christmas movies somehow. Linda’s favorite Christmas movie is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (mine, too!) and we both hated Scrooge. She and Katie agreed on Miracle on 34th St. I was the standout vote on claymation. It was a silly conversation, but it felt good to find something we could all have in common.

I didn’t really feel good about leaving Linda. I wanted to help her, but all I did was literally move her up the road a bit to an unknown destination. Katie had been going through her mental files thinking of places we could bring her, but if she wouldn’t agree to go to a shelter or church, there wasn’t much we could do but drop her off where she said her friends would be. Her contacts in the court system could only step in if Linda if had been arrested. And although she had just been released from the hospital, she said she had no case worker or social worker to ask for help.

Still, by the end of the ride, Linda was smiling. I have no idea if we helped her, but she certainly made me realize how lucky I am. Today, my family is coming over to celebrate with us, and really, the only thing we’re celebrating is the fact that we’re so lucky. Linda probably won’t have a Thanksgiving dinner. She told us to eat some turkey for her. I don’t normally eat turkey, but what the hell. It seems a little ungrateful not to.

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Weekly Assignment: Practice Gratitude

Maya Angelou graffiti and Life Doesn't Frighten Me poem

Every day this week, write down five things you’re grateful for. Try to write different things every day, but write whatever comes to mind. You’ll quickly start to see that you have much to be grateful for. If you’re having a rough day, feel free to start simply. Be grateful for the roof over your head, the birds singing outside, having enough to eat, that driver who let you change lanes in heavy traffic, your cat, the poker game you played last week, whatever.

In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes how her mentor taught her to practice gratitude. She was in the midst of an awful depression and felt like no one could help her.

I told him I was going crazy. He said no and then asked, “What’s really wrong?” and I, upset that he had not heard me said, “I thought about killing myself today and killing Guy. I’m telling you I’m going crazy.”

Wilkie said, “Sit down right here at this table, here is a yellow pad and here is a ballpoint pen. I want you to write down your blessings.”

I said, “Wilkie, I don’t want to talk about that, I’m telling you I am going crazy.”

He said, “First, write down that I said write down and think of the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, or a symphony, or their own babies crying. Write down, I can hear — Thank God. Then write down that you can see this yellow pad, and think of the millions of people around the world who cannot see a waterfall, or flowers blooming, or their lover’s face. Write I can see — Thank God. Then write down that you can read. Think of the millions of people around the world who cannot read the news of the day, or a letter from home, a stop sign on a busy street, or … ”

I followed Wilkie’s orders and when I reached the last line on the first page of the yellow pad, the agent of madness was routed.

That incident took place over fifty years ago. I have written some twenty-five books, maybe fifty articles, poems, plays and speeches all using ballpoint pens and writing on yellow pads.

When I decide to write anything, I get caught up in my insecurity despite the prior accolades. I think uh, uh, now they will know I am a charlatan that I really cannot write and write well. I am almost undone, then I pull out a new yellow pad and as I approach the clean page, I think of how blessed I am.

As you continue to practice intentional gratitude, you create a shift in your own awareness. You start looking for things in your life that you can be grateful for, and the more you look for them, the more you find. Does practicing gratitude actually create more awesome things in your life or does it just help you see what you’ve been overlooking? Does it matter?

Start now. What are you grateful for?

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How to Give Joyfully

Take stock of what’s awesome in your life. Make a list if you need to.

First of all, if you’re reading this, you probably have internet access. You’re pretty intelligent. You’re a forward-thinking person who’s always looking to grow and become better. Chances are good that you’ve got some kind and loving people in your life, and most of your basic needs are met rather reliably.

We remember Maslow’s hierarchy, right? The more of your basic needs are being met, the more freedom you have to go be awesome. When you’re not worried about where your next meal is coming from, you can think about things like art and literature. You can go dancing or enjoy the sunshine. You’re able to look around and appreciate all the goodness in the world.

When you’re feeling good and grateful, ask yourself: “What if everyone was this lucky?” What if everyone could marry their best friend? What if everyone was healthy and felt good about their bodies? What if everyone had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep? When I notice how lucky I am and how good life is, I feel compelled to share it with everyone I can in whatever way I can. For me, that’s teaching yoga and writing. Especially when I’m teaching yoga, I have the opportunity to give people an experience of joy, compassion, and well-being that I think is priceless. And the joy I get from this? It’s immense.

That kind of giving is really receiving. I may be giving you a yoga class, but I’m receiving the immeasurable honor of connecting with you on your path. If you love cooking, giving a meal to your friends or someone in needs is wonderfully fulfilling. If you love fashion, helping someone assemble a perfect date or interview outfit could feel great. Anything you do can be turned into a gift to the world. You can coach coach a little league sports team, lead writing or art workshops, teach a friend to knit, or volunteer to support a cause you’re passionate about. If you share what makes you happiest and the most grateful, giving will feel like a blessing, and you’ll never want to stop.

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How to Wake Up Happy

What happens in those minutes between when your alarm goes off the first time and when you actually get out of bed?

Most people just snuggle down for a few more minutes of much needed rest, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I bet you thought I was gonna tell you to get your lazy butt out of bed and hit the ground running, right? Yeah, well that doesn’t sound like very much fun, so I don’t do it, and I don’t recommend it. Here’s what I do every morning to make the day just a little more awesome.

Alarm goes off. I fumble around a minute to find the phone. I look through blurry morning eyes to figure out which way I need to push the slider on the screen so the damn thing will shut up. Then there’s silence, and I lay my head back down.

Mao is grateful that I'm about to feed him.

Then I lay there and try to come up with 10 things to be grateful for before I drift off to sleep again. The list usually goes something like this:

  1. I’m so grateful to be here in this warm cozy bed with my husband.
  2. I’m so lucky to have this house in a good neighborhood where I feel safe and happy.
  3. I’m so glad I have enough to eat every day.
  4. I’m so excited about the opportunities I have coming up.
  5. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends today.
  6. I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing.
  7. I’m thankful for the cat sleeping on my feet right now.
  8. zzzzzzzz

It doesn’t really matter if I come up with 10 things or not, nor does it matter what things are on my list. I usually fall asleep for a few minutes before the alarm goes off again.

I'm grateful for the sun coming in my window.

Practicing gratitude magically creates space in your life for more good things to happen and more things to be grateful for. The feeling of gratitude is actually one of the most pleasurable emotions we have. It’s a sense of fulfillment, contentment, abundance and joy. When you have something to be grateful for, then you also have something to share, which means you have the ability to help make others happy, too.

In short: Gratitude is powerful!

A lot of teachers will tell you that you have to get up and meditate every morning, and I absolutely encourage that, but if you’re not feeling totally zen when you wake up, that’s OK. Just be where you are. Be happy lying there in your warm and comfortable bed, and more good things will come your way as you open up to them.

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