There have been times, oh so many times, when the thought of compiling a list of things for which to be grateful was a little more than I could bear. Those are moments when gratitude is difficult.
Life can be difficult. Excruciating, even.
Sometimes, getting through one hour after another, means holding your breath till you remember that you are supposed to inhale and exhale. Then, those repeated steps become your occupation until you think of something else to get you through the next block of time. I’ll just hold on till the end of this show, or till Mom gets here, or till Aaron gets home, or till the baby wakes up. Then you make another deal to get through the next time span.
What is your touchpoint?
I remember those days during chemotherapy, when my stomach churned and my head spun, but the worst part was the unbelievable pain from the bone marrow stimulating shots that I had to give myself the day after each chemo. My shins ached and burned; they felt like the bone would split open, and no pain reliever would touch it.
My husband would place one of his palms on each shin and somehow found just the right amount of pressure. The combination of the heat of his hand and the pressure lifted the pain just enough. The first time he did that, I let out a sob. He stopped and quickly pulled his hands away, afraid that he had hurt me. I struggled to find the words to tell him that the sob was relief. Please, please, put your hands back.
As long as he held his hands there, the pain was held at bay, but it returned when he pulled them away. So we sat like that; his hands on my shins, my hands holding them there. Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we just sat there holding each other. These were the moments I could let my guard down.
Start with just one thing
Even in those worst moments, you can look around and find that one thing that is getting you through to the next moment. What is your touchstone right now? Find something, anything, that you can focus on, that you can appreciate. Is it the chair you’re sitting in? Your favorite pillow? The grain pattern running through your wood floor? A quiet moment? A distraction? A cup of coffee?
Now, really appreciate it.
Focus on it.
Allow yourself to lean on it.
Vulnerability isn’t easy
I felt so guilty about not having the strength to take care of my baby, unassisted. I’d just had a mastectomy and was going through chemotherapy, and later, radiation, yet I managed to heap guilt on myself for being an inadequate mother to my 1-year-old daughter.
It took me a while to see how blessed I was to have my mother and my friends there to help me care for my daughter. I could not bring myself to ask for help, but they showed up anyway. They sat with me and the baby, keeping us both company, just there to help with the heavy lifting, especially in those days when I was not even allowed to pick her up.
My baby was happy, and healthy, and well cared for, whether it was me lifting her out of the crib, or one of my helpers. I felt relief immediately, but it took a bit to fully embrace the feelings of gratitude. It took an attitude shift to appreciate the fact accepting that help was not a signal that I was failing as a mother, but just the opposite. I was doing what my child needed most for her own safety. With my helpers there, I was free to nap as needed and regain my strength, so I could stay awake to watch her another day.
Sometimes gratitude requires an attitude shift
That change from thinking I am supposed to be super-mom, to acknowledging that I’m only human was difficult.
I had to redefine for myself what it meant to be a mom. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and I had to accept my own hypocrisy, and then allow my village to participate in raising my child.
Ultimately, I also had a learn to have a little compassion for myself. By asking what I would want my daughter to do in this situation, the answer became easy. It was easier to be compassionate with myself, after experiencing a little compassion for my daughter in a hypothetically similar situation.
The process of shifting my attitude towards gratitude allowed me to have a little more compassion for myself and ultimately, it made me a better mother, because I was able to fully embrace putting my daughter’s well-being ahead of any feelings of guilt.
I also understand, even more as she gets older, that I don’t need to be, nor should I be, her everything.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult because it means accepting that we have weaknesses.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult simply because we lack the creativity, or the will, to think up a list.
It’s easier to hold on to what’s wrong, because there’s more energy in that.
There are times, especially when I’m really enjoying wallowing in a good funk, that I don’t want to do the whole gratitude thing because I know it will mess up my funk, and I’m quite comfortable there.
The power of repetition
This emotional morass we experience through life doesn’t always adhere to logic.
It does, however, respond to repetition.
Thought patterns become habitual.
Emotional patterns become habitual.
So, whether the habit is wallowing in a funk or in gratitude, that becomes the default. But, that default is pretty easy to change, in either direction.
I’ve maintained a gratitude journal for a little while now. It’s nothing complicated, I just try to think of 5 specific and timely things for which I am grateful and write them down at the end of the day. It takes less than 5 minutes.
One day, a particularly bad day, I opened my journal with the intent of unloading everything that was wrong with the world. But while I was thinking through my plans of everything I was going to whine about, my hand, completely out of habit, wrote the word “Gratitude” at the top of the page. So, I decided to go ahead and do the gratitude list first, and whine later. By the time I finished the short list of five items, my mood had completely changed and I lost the desire to whine.
It’s not always that simple and easy and straightforward, but it usually is.
Over time, I have come to realize that gratitude is not just a means of cheering myself up, or engaging in the socially acceptable practice of being thankful.
Gratitude is a coping mechanism, and on those bad days, it’s one of the things that helps me get from one time span to the next.
I’ve written about my gratitude practice a few times lately, and one of the things it has most reinforced for me is that you find what you’re looking for. This video has been making it’s rounds of the internet lately, and for good reason. It’s lovely, and it’s inspiring. it’s worth the three minutes to watch.
My gratitude journal started out as a quick list every night. I just got in the habit of listing 5 things for which I was thankful each night before bed; often it was the same, or a similar list, each time. Husband, daughter, a roof over our heads, and the last two varied, but it was a less than fascinating list.
Then I started putting some effort into mixing things up. I didn’t just say I was thankful for my husband, I got specific and mentioned a quality or something he did or said. Same with my daughter – and many other frequent flyers on my gratitude list. Soon, my nightly entries morphed from a quick five-word-list to an accounting of my day that was framed around an expression of gratitude.
I’ve kept a journal for most of my life, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but once I added the gratitude element, the journal took on a different, more energetic and pro-active tone – it’s my autobiography written through the lens of gratitude.
I found myself looking for things throughout the day, taking note of things – ooh, that’s going on my list tonight!
Still, there are days when I have to look really, really hard
There have been times when the world just falls apart around me, and yet still I can always find at least five things.
I resisted this idea for a while – it’s essentially dishonest, I thought, to disregard everything that’s going wrong. But that’s where I was wrong. It is not a matter of disregard.
A few months ago, my husband had a medical crisis while he was in Istanbul. It was a stressful and terrifying experience, but the relief I felt once we got him from the airport to safely admitted to the hospital was palpable. To acknowledge that relief underscores, rather than dismisses, the significance of that crisis.
This process doesn’t disregard the darkness, it looks for the light. My gratitude practice exercises the sames skills I use to find solutions to problems. I imagine there are worse mental pathways to make habitual.
And it is becoming a habitual practice.
Not to long ago, I took to my journal ready to whine and complain about everything that was going wrong, but out of habit, I had written the word “Gratitude” at the top of the page.
I couldn’t fill a page with whining when it had the word gratitude at the top. So I decided to go ahead and do my gratitude list first, and whine later on another page.
I never got around to whining. That’s when I knew my gratitude practice was really working.
As we head into the month of Thanksgiving, and tonight especially, there is so much for which to be thankful, and it does seem to be the topic of the hour. Today, among so many other things that bless my life, I am thankful for my gratitude practice.
I know that the idea of a gratitude practice is starting to gain some popularity. Anyone else out there make a practice of it? Any thoughts?
I like to joke that no one really knows what I look like without a camera in front of my face. I’m THAT girl at parties: the one who hides behind the camera, capturing moments more than participating. The one who rarely actually appears in photographs…
Put Mom in the Picture
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, this really bothered me. For the first time ever, it was REALLY important to me that I have photos of myself, and photos of myself with my husband and daughter.
I wanted my family to have them – not just in case I died, but also to mark who I am right now, because I’m evolving. My looks are changing daily as my hair grows back. My outlook is changing daily as well; each new day brings a new challenge, and something else at which to marvel.
I’m trying to teach myself photography, and in that process, I spend a lot of time studying the work of some of my favorite photographers. Each has their own unique and identifiable style. What I’m learning is that a picture doesn’t just tell you about the subject matter in the frame, it tells you a whole lot about the photographer. You can see moods, attitude, approach… you can see respect, affection, and love.
The photograph is a record of the world as I see it
That realization eased my mind a bit about my absence from the photographs. I understand now, that I am in all those photographs that I have taken.
The photograph is a record of the world as I see it. It’s an opportunity to look at life through my eyes, to see what I see.
My hope is that someday in the future – when my daughter is 13/16/18/whatever, and mad at me because I wouldn’t let her stay up late/take the car/have my credit card/whatever – that she will, every once in a while, glance at one of the millions of photos I’ve taken of her, and see that the person behind the camera loves her with everything she has to give.
I can see my attitudes in the photos I’ve taken. I can see the difference between the photos taken to simply to document a place, thing, or an occasion, and those that seek out the magic of the moment. Mood, attitude, and approach do make a difference.
The camera bag of my dreams
Long before I had a real DSLR camera, I had my eye on a camera bag. Not just any camera bag, a beautiful camera bag from Epiphanie Bags.
After I was finally able to get my good camera this summer (with some help from my mom – THANKS MOM!), I bookmarked my dream bag, and revisited regularly. But purchasing the bag was out of the question. The price was prohibitive.
Not to long ago, I even posted the link on Facebook with the words, “sigh… someday.”
A couple weeks later that bag appeared at my door.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t order it.
I don’t know who sent it to me. It was delivered by the UPS guy with no note attached.
I laughed, I cried, I jumped up and down and squealed, even scaring my baby a bit till I convinced her it was a happy dance. I am completely in awe of this bag, and the kind, anonymous, generosity that caused it to become mine.
A Sense of Gratitude and Magic
I tear up every time I look at the bag, I also stand a little taller with that beautiful braided strap over my shoulder. That kindness now travels with me everywhere. Each time I reach for my camera, I am reminded of this generosity, and as I look through my lens at the world, I do so with a sense of gratitude and magic, and I hope that will show in my photographs.
Thank you my friend, whoever you are. You have given me so much more than a gorgeous bag to cradle my camera. Bless you.
I am so ready to get on with my life, but first I want to take a moment to say thank you to everyone who helped get me through the past 16 months since my diagnosis.
Look at that face. She is such a powerful motivator. And sweet, too.
No matter how rough things got, she was enough to get me out of bed – Even if that meant just going to the living room, and cuddling up with her on the floor.
It’s amazing how much she has grown up through this ordeal. Here she is just a week before I was diagnosed:
2. My Husband, Aaron
Aaron is my biggest cheerleader, the one who kept telling me that I CAN do this. He was the one who held me when I cried, and told me he would still love me no matter what, and made me feel sexy even missing a boob.
He wouldn’t let me get depressed, and he fills my life with music.
My mom was the one I could count on to drop everything, and come running at a moment’s notice
4. Friends who formed a little army of volunteers
Kristen, Mary Jane, Diane, Sommer, Carrie, Candice, Tim, Mel, Sharon, and Perry – I can’t begin to describe how much you helped me. From bringing meals, to babysitting Gem, to washing dishes, to just sitting with me or taking me outside for a walk, you really helped to carry me through.
5. The young women of the Young Survival Coalition
It’s one thing to experience sympathy and empathy, but nothing helps like meeting others who understand because they’ve been there. I have written about the Young Survival Coalition before, and I’m sure I will do so again and again and again going forward. These girls are my confidants, my hand-holders, my glass of wine with a side of giggles, and my sneaking out from a vegetarian retreat to bring back a side of bacon.
5. Debbie Cantwell and The Pink Daisy Project
A breast cancer survivor herself, Debbie started The Pink Daisy Project to help other young women deal with the overwhelming facts of everyday life that pile up while battling this disease. She came to my rescue by sending grocery cards so I could buy diapers, and hired a cleaning crew when I was too sick to deal with housekeeping. Debbie is truly a hero. Stay tuned: I’ll have more to say about Debbie in future posts. 🙂
Dee is one of my oldest friends, and she’s been there for me through thick and thin. When I was diagnosed, she flew out to be here with me during my mastectomy. She helped whip my house into shape while I was recovering, and watched the baby, and helped in too many ways to list in one post. She’s another one of those people that I can count on no matter what.
7. Old and New Friends; Some I’ve Never Met
Social media is an amazing phenomenon, and it has had a profound effect on my life. It’s brought me back into contact with old friends I haven’t seen in more than two decades, and it has introduced me to new friends, some I speak with every day, but have yet to meet face to face. These friends have followed me through the ups and downs, provided encouragement, hope, sometimes a little gift or cash, an ear, a shoulder – and often at 3 in the morning, when normal people aren’t available.
So now I’m done with treatment. I’m still contending with some of the side effects. I have some neuropathy, the fatigue is still slowing me down, and I’m typing with one hand because my arm is bound up to treat the lymphedema. But these are little, non-life-threatening issues, and we can deal with that.
Right now, my heart is just full of gratitude.
Now, we are looking forward. We are looking forward to Aaron getting a job. We are looking forward to me finishing my degree. We are looking forward to Gem being potty trained, and learning to read, and getting ready for pre-school. We are looking forward to a long, happy, and healthy life together.