Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gratitude When the World gets Weary

I've been meaning to write something for weeks, but I've been struggling lately. I try not to make my blog about comparing myself to others, or even about anyone who may read it, because I began this process as a spiritual practice, a way to reflect on my own relationship with gratitude over this past year. But lately, I've been reading a lot of blogs and news articles, ones that talk about what's going on in America, the injustices done to black men at the hands of white police, and the protesting that has followed.

Mostly, it's been difficult to write because I just feel very, very sad. I'm sad and angry that black men (and women) are less safe than white men (and women) in this country. I'm sad and angry that we have a broken criminal justice system. I'm sad and angry that white people feel so defensive about race generally, and about what has gone on in the news specifically. And I'm sad and angry at myself, at the ways that I am complicit in and benefit from racism, at the moments I look back and know I could have done more, said something different, said something at all. And that last part is something I'll continue to work through, because I think that part of owning up to my own privilege is about naming my shit, but not getting bogged up in it. Not making it about me.

Which, I'll admit, I've already sort of done, so bear with me. Or don't. Your call. The thing that has been holding me back from writing about gratitude, and my connectedness to gratitude, stems from this: how could I write about something so trivial as letters of thanks when there So Many Things more important to discuss? Why write so small when there are so many big things happening? Why bother with gratitude when there is so much brokenness in the world?

What helped me get back into my writing practice was that the people who I was writing to were my people. Like, my people people. These are friends who help me be my best and bravest self. They see me and love me, just as I am, but they also don't take any bullshit. They help me work through what needs work (hey there, white privilege!), and they hold me accountable to the things that I say I value. They help me to not be a hypocrite. Well, at least less of one.

And that, I am grateful as hell for.

So as I think about who I am in the midst of this world, there are many ways that I respond. Large and small. Through teaching and learning and listening and relationships. And through absolute gratitude for the people who make me brave.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Mothers Who Made Me

The past several weeks I have been writing letters to women who have been mentors and mothers to me in deep, profound, and lasting ways. These are the thoughts that came together.

The Mothers Who Made Me

For mothers who spent long nights
tracing the curves of my ears to help me sleep
who rocked me in the dead of night, who made
special magic to keep the monsters at bay,
for the ones who taught me the Good Books,
the stories that winnowed into my bones and
reminded me of what it means to live.
For mothers who ushered me through adolescence
the perpetual tide of emotion and
the power of the undertow, but somehow
taught me not to drown in my own self-image,
in my compulsion to be seen.
For mothers who helped me to see myself clearly,
even the faults
even the shortcomings
And to learn the bittersweet tang when the words hit your tongue
words like,
I was wrong.
I am angry.
Let’s talk.
I’m sorry.

Women who taught me it is a brave thing to cry.

I have many mothers who made me
teachers, mentors, preachers, mothers, best friends, aunts,
and all human, too.
For those who say it takes two to make a family,
how lonely life must be.
Because the mothers who made me
are legion,
like spokes on a wheel
like clusters of stars who shine bright for the world
(the light I have seen by
on many dark nights)
for one mother cannot be
Everything or Everyone
and there are so many mothers in this world
just waiting
to help the ones who come after
to teach them to
teach themselves

what it means to be alive.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Spontaneous Gratitude

After two weeks of sending smaller, shorter cards of thanks rather than the long-form letters I had been sending this year, I've noticed the ways in which these gestures are different. For one, the cards feel much more spontaneous. It allows me to recognize the moments of gratitude I feel for others throughout my day, as if I'm keeping a kind of written record of all the goodness I experience from others. It's also a great practice to begin or end the day, like a kind of prayer. An ancient form of prayer called "Praying the Examen" encourages this kind of reflection. In the prayer, you look back on the last 24 hours as if it were a movie, noting all of the moments where God was present. These cards are kind of like that. It's an opportunity to remember small blessings, and to affirm that goodness in others.

The other thing I noticed is that paying attention to gratitude in the small, mundane moments of my life forces me to turn away from the harried, worried, reflexive, grumpypants thoughts that may have been spinning around in my brain. I'm a pretty positive person, but, particularly when I'm stressed, my thoughts can spiral down into doubt, impatience, and negativity. When I notice those everyday moments at times that I'm feeling grateful, a candle lights inside me and those shadowy places don't have as much power as they did moments ago.

Next week I'll return to my longer letters, since that is what I set out to do. But I'll try and continue sending small gestures of thanks, to help keep alight those everyday moments.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Gratitude for the Holy Places

Over the past several weeks, I've been talking with colleagues and friends about what and when and how and why they practice gratitude. It has been interesting to see how different people respond to these conversations, and to see what I can learn from the ways that others share their gratitude to their communities. I have many colleagues who send several thank-you notes a week (some send several a day) to parishioners, colleagues, volunteers--those with whom they work on a regular basis. I do this to some degree; after large events where individuals spend a lot of time to make something cool happen for their community, whether that event is a youth mission trip or a spiritual retreat, I will thank those involved for their efforts. But the nature of setting up a practice of thanking others several times a week means that a person ends up sending notes of gratitude for cleaning out the fridge after a potluck, or for saying a kind word to the grieving friend, or for praying for others, or one of many small but important tasks that happen in my line of work. As I have been writing letters of gratitude, this different method of thanking others begs the question of whether all gratitude is the same. How do we serve others, and how to we serve ourselves by being grateful in multiple, multifaceted ways?

What I am learning from my practice is that letters of gratitude require that I "go deep", that I reflect on the entire span of my relationship with others so that I can fully recognize and acknowledge the many different ways that individuals have affected me. It takes some time. And it forces me into a different heart space than my normal routine. It's the same emotional space that pastoral emergencies require. Gratitude is not an emergency, for sure, but emergencies require that I be fully present to what is going on; everything else--pettiness, fretting, doubt, complaints--those things fall away in the midst of urgent pastoral needs. being grateful requires that same presence in order for me to be able to write what I feel I must write. Gratitude is a holy place.

I think for the next several weeks, I will write short notes of gratitude, to see what ways that experience might be different. I'm sure holiness is there, too, and I'm curious to see how God shows up in those moments.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summer Breaking

After a break of blogging this summer, I'm returning, so very grateful for the wonderful, supportive friends in my life. I love the gift of celebrating a new marriage between two friends, and the kindness they shower on me. Check out this week for a new post!

In the meantime, check out this awesome gift from the happy couple:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On Naming Love

The last time I went to visit my family, I had a long discussion with my sisters about love languages. The idea of love languages comes from a book by the same title, and in it, the author identifies different ways that we communicate our love to each other. The five languages are words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. We talked about how this affects our relationships, whether they're family, friends, or romantic. Some of the more difficult moments in many relationships in my life has been the result of not understanding how they were trying to love me.

Quality time is my primary love language, which is probably one reason why I sometimes feel outside of my comfort zone in this practice. Although it is true that we should be aware of and respect one another's ways of loving, it is also true that exploring other ways of loving expands our capacity to love. When we identify resistance in our experience, maybe we hate receiving gifts, for example, we can look a little deeper and uncover why we resist certain ways of loving and being loved.

Gratitude, at it's heart, is about loving others through naming the ways they have loved us. It is identifying the ways that a person has positively affected us--maybe in ways that aren't our natural love language. Gratitude is about letting others know that we see that love, whether it's a hug, or a care package, or a letter in the mail.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

On Giving It A Rest

Since I started this practice, one thing I've started to pay attention to are moments when I feel resistance to gratitude. What is going on in my life and my soul when I don't feel like writing a letter, and what kind of excuses do I make to not follow through with my practice? The latter tends to be busyness, which can sometimes be a strange conflation of events that makes my life truly jam-packed, but usually its a kind of self-induced self-importance, a way of retreating from others rather than leaning into life and the complexity that it brings.

Everybody likes to say they're busy. Out here in the suburbs, it's the litany of the day. "My God," folks say as they breathlessly walk to a meeting five minutes late, "Sorry. I'm just so busy." And they are. But many people (myself included) stuff their lives (and the lives of their children) so tightly that there is no room to take a pause. No room to appreciate their lives. No room for gratitude.

That's not to say that we should all rescind our invitations to parties, stop doing activities we enjoy, and join a hermitage. But I meet so many people who seem to take a weird masochistic pleasure in being perpetually overwhelmed, maybe out of fear that their lives are only meaningful if they'e exciting, maybe out of a worry that standing still will mean they actually have to be alone with themselves or family. God forbid if they don't like the company.

I do my best to practice Sabbath, a day set aside to rest and to appreciate God's creation. Historically, this is a weekly practice, but I also believe that Sabbath time is an important element to the day, every single day. These letters are a type of Sabbath. It's a break in my routine where I devote time to express gratitude for God's creation--creation manifest in people I love, and who love me in return. It's a time to direct my attention outside of myself; each letter is related to my experience, to be certain, but it provides me with a lens to see my own experience through an emphasis on another.

If busyness makes us the center of the universe, maybe gratitude is a natural deterrent for the kind of self-centeredness that teaches us to forget that the world is an enormous and incredible place, full of all kinds of people, most of whom are not me. Maybe gratitude helps direct us toward those moments and loved ones who are so vital to our wholeness. It steers us in the direction of love, and to a kind of living that takes time to be lived fully.