In the middle of last week, I felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to see my family. They all live 100 miles away or so and have busy lives, with jobs, kids and hectic social calendars. It had only been a month or so, but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t send out an S.O.S., or even a guilt trip. I simply sent out an invitation via text message:
I am missing my family something fierce these days. Is anyone free to come meet me in San Clemente this weekend? Saturday or Sunday?
They had early morning soccer games and late night concert tickets, home projects and volunteering commitments, but miraculously, they all said yes. Sunday morning they were willing to drive forty miles to see me and my family. The only ones missing would be Keara, away at college, and my parents, who are currently crossing the Atlantic on a Disney cruise. Since we were going to be near some of our best friends, I texted them the invitation as well. I immediately heard back:
We are around all day. We will join you wherever you guys end up. Just let me know! Yippee!
Well, that’s awesome, I thought and I went through the rest of my week with a smile on my face, knowing that Sunday would be a good day. But as the week went on, the thought of Sunday started to lag. Our family was out late Friday and Saturday nights; I was speaking at our church on Sunday evening and nightly school, work and social events are lined up for the next six days. I didn’t need an additional hundred-mile roundtrip, beach extravaganza to be happy.
What was I thinking? I asked myself as the alarm went off on Sunday morning. (Alarms should never go off on Sunday mornings!) But we loaded up the truck with surfboards, wetsuits, fins and frisbees and headed up the coast to meet our crew.
Of course, the day was fabulous and worth every ounce of effort. The sun never really came out, but as you can see, it didn’t slow us, or our fun down.
As we piled in the car to head home, I pulled out my phone to send a birthday text message to a very special person.
Twenty-five years ago yesterday on September 18, 1991, I gave birth to Sarah Moses, my first-born daughter and twenty-five years ago today, I gave her up for adoption. She had been on my mind all week as this milestone birthday approached. I had already sent off a birthday card and made plans to meet up with her mom, Dee. Sarah is finishing up grad school in Los Angeles, so getting to see her is always a challenging proposition!
I could have called, but instead I wrote:
Happy Birthday darling girl! I can’t believe you are 25 today. I am thinking of you, love you and spent the morning with my brothers and sisters who all held you the day you were born and loved on you. My best friend Laura sends her love. She was there that day as well and she gave me a big hug for you. You are always in my heart Sarah Moses and I hope you feel my love over the miles.
I hit send and then I laughed.
What had I done? Somehow, unconsciously, without ever making the connection, I had gathered around me the very people who had been present to me on that beautiful and heartbreaking day, a quarter century ago.
On that day, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, in love with my newborn daughter and letting her go. I had told my mom in advance that I wanted my family to come meet her. Even though she wouldn’t be a part of our lives, I wanted us to celebrate her birth together. It was a school day, so my dad drove my 14 and 11-year-old siblings, Tim and Amy, a hundred miles through rush hour traffic to be there. Charlie, my older brother, was at school at USD just around the corner, and he brought his then-girlfriend, Laura, with him to lend support.
When we got home from the beach, I pulled out my photo album from the day of Sarah’s birth and found the family photo that included the baby girl who celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday yesterday.
I sent it to her with the caption: Your birth family on your birth day!
I also discovered pictures of moments I had forgotten, showing the tenderness with which she and I were both held that day.
In The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho writes: “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.” Though I loved the book, I never really believed the message. There are too many examples from my own life and those of others that seem to refute it, but yesterday, my experience was undeniable.
The universe conspired to bring me something I wanted, even though I didn’t know why I wanted it. I put it out there, an invitation, and twenty-five years later to the very day, I was again surrounded and held with tenderness and love, in joy and celebration of being a family.
Last night, I looked through all the photos I took at the beach yesterday, of my siblings and Laura (yes, the then-girlfriend, but still dear friend), and their spouses and children, and I saw the Universe conspiring again.
Before we packed up, I made some of the kids pause for a picture. They did and then they started to pose themselves. They were laughing and falling, clamoring for the shot before they dropped their friend or cousin or sibling on the ground. I stared in disbelief at the photos last night at what I didn’t see when I was taking them. They were holding one another, like babies in their mother’s arms, like each of their parents had held Sarah on the day she was born.
Last night as I lay in bed with Tim, I almost wept in surprised gratitude for the way it all came together, the way life unfolded and encircled upon itself, all in one day and in one fell swoop. I am so glad the Universe responded, even though I was blessedly unaware of the reason for my call.
I think that’s how the Universe conspires. It doesn’t necessarily bring us what we want to be happy, but it brings us what we need to be whole. It doesn’t respond to the dreams we broadcast out loud, but listens instead to the whispered longings of our soul. And when it shows up, whatever “it” is, we have to be open to it. We have to let go of what we think we need to be happy, so we can be present to the healing that’s possible in that moment, through the seemingly random confluence of people and places, songs and situations that filter through our days. Call it synchronicity, or quantum entanglement. Call it Love, or call it God, but no matter what, call It to you and then look for it to come.
As complete and beautiful as yesterday was, I wish Keara Moses, the daughter named in honor of, but NOT as a replacement for, her older sister, could have been there with us. I also wish my mom and dad could have been present. To see all of us together brings them such joy. Pam Kantrud, is another significant person from my life at that time. She was the mother of the family I lived with while I was pregnant, and she was there on Sarah’s birth day too, counting my breaths, rubbing my back, and cooing over the beauty of my newborn baby girl.
And Sarah? Do I wish she was there too? Of course I do, but that’s a story for another time. In all things related to her, I work to find the delicate balance between loving her as my daughter and knowing she is someone else’s pride and joy, of calling her family, but respecting that she has her own. My own family, large and small, has all been able to spend time with her and I hope there will be ever more opportunities for that.
And finally, Tim. As I’ve mentioned before, he was there that day and every day since, holding my life in a tender embrace.
I know this is a kind of strange and unpleasant image. It wasn’t exactly where I thought I’d start this post, but it’s kind of fitting.
I woke up this morning, feeling under fire, kind of like you do on a Monday morning, when the weekend has sucked up every last ounce of your time and energy. I set my alarm, said my prayers, and started making lunch for my kids. There was only a heel of bread, enough turkey for one kid, expired mayonnaise and an apple that looked good on the outside, but was turning dark in the middle. But don’t worry! After fifteen years of making lunches, these things are not a problem. It’s a simple matter of sleight of hand and a confident presentation.
But twenty minutes later, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, a lesson caught up with me. As I poured expired milk down the drain, I saw the brown center of the apple, peeking out from under the dishes. Oops! That was a #signoflove, but who’s got the time? I dumped out the cold coffee pot. It didn’t move. I turned on the water and hit the garbage disposal button, but still Love didn’t budge.
Okay. I get it.
If Love remains in the compost pile of a dirty kitchen sink, then Love remains in the compost pile of our lives. Apparently, this was a message I needed to hear.
Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 45. I looked in the mirror. I didn’t love what I saw, so I looked around and I liked that a lot better.
I saw a husband, who is also my best friend. He’s the provider of stability and sound advice, but also the purveyor of all things creative and silly.
I saw three kids, each unique in their gifts and their challenges, but unified in their love for me and each other.
I saw countless friends and family who remembered me with texts, messages, phone calls and cards.
I looked around this morning and saw that I didn’t have a birthday “day.”
I have a birthday life.
Everyday, I can wake up and celebrate.
In the predawn darkness, I have a warm body lying next to me, a heart keeping time with mine.
In the silence and stillness of the morning, I sit with God and remember I am Loved.
In the busyness of my days, I have work to do and a healthy body and mind to do it.
In the fall of the evening, I have the privileges of my life to be grateful for and the hope of getting to do it all over again tomorrow.
Amidst all those daily routines, I also have access to hot coffee and cold beer, not to mention clean water and fresh food. There are sunny skies and good people in my life who bring me laughter and conversation and full-bodied hugs, any time I need them. The Pacific Ocean is only ten minutes away and I have a car with gas in it!
Who gets to live this life?
That’s what I remembered this morning.
This life is a gift. It’s mine; it’s the only one I’ll ever get and I want to celebrate it – all of it – even the stuff I didn’t ask for.
No one gets everything they want, or keeps everything they have. I may prefer to smile, but tears have something to teach me as well, as do hard conversations and unpleasant truths. While I tend to shove those packages to the back of the pile, sometimes they’re the greatest gifts of all, because they give me the opportunity to rediscover who I am and who I want to be.
At 45, I just want to be grateful, but I’m not always.
I just want to be here, but I often fantasize about being somewhere else.
I just want to Love, but instead, I close up shop when I’m feeling lazy.
At 45, I have a birthday life, but I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.
So, that #signoflove in the dirty sink?
Yeah, thanks for that Universe, as well as everyone else who reminded me of my birthday life and helps me live it. You’re the gift that just keeps on giving and for that, I’m grateful.
Tim and Finn got up early this Father’s Day morning and headed out to do some father-son bonding, which allowed us girls to do our favorite things. Keara slept; Molly watched Friends and Hawaii Five-O; I cleaned. Now, cleaning isn’t my very favorite thing, but having a clean house is, so it ultimately worked out. It’s eleven a.m. and I’m done, except for some piles of laundry sitting on the garage floor.
I also had a chance to read an article about the inception of Father’s Day and what a rough road it faced to garner acceptance. The first Father’s Day occurred in 1908, the same year as Mother’s Day, but unlike Mother’s Day, it was decades before it was made official by Congress. Honoring father’s was considered a joke – in part because the men in charge seemed to think it was “sissy” to be thanked and honored by women and children. The second reason so many people resisted the holiday was the cultural image and expectations we had of fathers. For millennia, until the last half century, fathers were thought of as “providers” (first of sperm, then of sustenance) and little else. If a father made sure their offspring didn’t die, then they had done their job. It was the mothers who mattered.
Well, a lot has changed in the last fifty years. We know fathers matter now. The statistics have shown how much better kids with present, active, engaged fathers perform – scholastically, socially, psychologically, emotionally. It doesn’t mean kids without dads are doomed; it just means the kids who have them are privileged in some pretty significant ways. I know I was and I know Tim wasn’t.
But our kids have the privilege of being raised by Tim, who has turned out to be a pretty amazing dad. While most young men are driven at that time in their life by monetary goals and career success, Tim was driven by one thing: he wanted to be a good husband and a present father. As twenty-year-olds, when we dreamed about our life together, it was always about how we could be there for our kids’ soccer practices and sick days, how we could take time off to spend to spend at the beach, or go to the mountains, how we could show up for each other, each and every day.
Tim was a great provider – of both sperm and sustenance – but he provides so much more. He provides humor and a calming influence; he provides the voice of reason and the safety regulations; he provides theLove and pride, encouragement and wisdom we need to become all we are meant to be. Having a good father in the house is good for me too.
For all those men out there, who provide so much more than the basics, thank you. This is your day.
And to my own father, thanks for providing so much more.
Last Saturday, Tim and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of a darling couple. I’ve known Brianne since she was just a little tyke and she’s known her now-husband, Michael, for almost that long. The wedding took place in the same church where we were married over two decades ago. It was great to be back and recall the excitement and the nerves that accompanied us that day, but also the joy and the Love we felt. Watching Brianne and Michael, I am pretty sure they were experiencing the same.
In honor of this Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share with you the letter I wrote to them and enclosed with their wedding gift. I am grateful for my health, my family and friends, and my home, but I am most grateful for the opportunity to Love and to witness Love wherever it takes place, whether it’s halfway around the world, or in my own backyard.
November 21, 2015
Dear Brianne and Michael Blackmun –
Granted this is an unusual wedding greeting – a missive inside a card. Wait until you open the box. It’s an unusual wedding gift as well. But you two, like Tim and I, make for an unusual couple. Personally, those are my favorite kind. So, when you open the box, this is what you will find. Two coffee mugs, two dish towels and one very special book called Big Magic.
I often give one of my favorite books on marriage, The Zimzum of Love, to young couples just tying the knot. You two, however, having been together for ten years, need a little less advice perhaps than most in that area. I love how madly in love you two still are after all this time and I’ve got a little secret for you…
You might have been told your feelings will fade, that it won’t always be like this, but I look at you and I think, “They’re wrong.” Brianne, you are clearly in love with LOVE itself (so am I – it takes one to know one) and so I think your marriage will always be full of love – the romantic, playful, silly, affectionate kind of love. Yes, there will be hard times and struggles and dry spells, but I think they will be weathered with affection, good humor, grace and forgiveness. Your marriage will always feel like an adventure, in good times and bad, something to be eagerly embraced, thinking, “I wonder what tomorrow will bring.” Brianne, this gift of Loving joyfully and whole-heartedly is not something everyone has and Michael brings it out in you, so appreciate it and use it well! You hit the Love Jackpot, not just in finding the right guy, but in having a heart made for it. Congratulations!
But there’s more, so on to Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. The author calls it basically a permission slip for everyone to use their creativity.
Brianne, you are one of the most creative women I know. I remember going to your college graduation party with your degree in studio art and looking at all your work and being blown away by the tender beauty of it all, especially your heart sculpture. I hope you have that piece somewhere on display still! You decided not to pursue your art professionally, which I totally understand, but what I want to say, as you’re making this lifetime commitment to Michael, is that I hope you have also made a lifetime commitment to your creativity. Your artful heart and creative spirit are the essence of you. I hope this book will encourage you to continue to find expressions and outlets for the art that wants to be born from your soul. It is so important, for you and the world.
A marriage is only as healthy as each of the people speaking their vows and our culture makes it so easy to hide our truest selves behind all sorts of masks. But a marriage between two hiders can’t become the fullest expression of Love and happiness. It can work for a while, maybe even a lifetime, but it won’t allow each person to flourish and become all they are meant to be in and for the world. In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert will remind you over and over again to be Brianne! Be Michael! Commit to practices of concern, compassion and courage in your Love for each other and for yourselves as well.
You have so many gifts and cards to open that I will stop talking now. This isn’t meant to be advice. It is just meant to be encouragement to listen to what your heart already knows. You and Michael clearly Love each other and are committed to the well-being and freedom of the other person. Keep living that out, all the days of your life!
With so much Love, hope and faith in you two!
Ali and Tim
P.S. – I couldn’t end without sharing one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite poets. This kind of Love works, but only if you’re both doing it!
Adapted slightly from Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi mystic and poet.
P.P.S. I wrote that letter before the wedding and sharing it here allows me to write a second post-script. I know that brides and grooms are technically supposed to be the ones writing the thank you cards after the wedding, but every time I leave a wedding, I feel like I’m the one who should be saying thanks. Not only are wedding days wonderful parties (and it doesn’t matter how big, or small the budget), they are also beautiful expressions of the energy, hopefulness and joy that Love builds and brings to the world. Since Love is my favorite emotion, weddings and newlyweds are some of my favorite things. Thank you, Brianne and Michael for delivering big time!
This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.
Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.
I’ve written a few times about Family Camp- you can catch up here and here – but to be clear, here are a few more things you should know.
My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.
I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.
The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.
Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)
For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.
Gratitude for Seasons 2015
This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”
Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.
But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.
And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.
At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)
And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.
Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”
Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?
Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.” But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.
So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.
He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”
The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.
And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.
Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.
You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.
And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.
Because gratitude comes in two forms –
Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.
A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.
For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.
Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.
A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.
That’s why the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,
We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.
It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.
Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life. “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”
That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.
I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.
And after the poem, look at this.
People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable.
Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.
As the mystic, Theresa of Avila, said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)
You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.
David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb? You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.
The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time
magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty, and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:
In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.
That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.
A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.
So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.
And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.
I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.
I’m grateful for it all.
For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day, I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.
Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.
If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here.
This morning, I watched my sixteen-year-old get in a friend’s car and drive to school, in her Catholic school uniform with her hair a freshly-died, espresso black and her lips painted purple. A few minutes later, I dropped the Lad off for his first day of high school, watching him walk on to campus, looking just like my brothers did at his age, all skinny legs and freckles and big ears. I came home to pack lunch for my baby starting her first day of middle school, where she will sit shoulder to shoulder with boys who can grow mustaches and girls who shave their legs. And then I came home and sat in awe at the passage of time.
I won’t say that time travels fast. That’s too simplistic and it doesn’t always ring true. Sometimes, time travels slowly. There were years and years when it didn’t feel like anything ever changed. There was the almost six year season of pregnancy and breastfeeding, one baby after another. And I’ll never forget the era of bodily functions – almost ten solid years of changing diapers and wiping bottoms. It’s been over fifteen years of the same dinner and bedtime prayers and the kiss and hug goodnight before turning out the light. Keara ushers in a new era and Molly brings it to its conclusion.
But the epoch of having a young family is coming to its natural end. I generally talk a good game about looking forward to what’s coming up ahead, but today I was faced with reality. Despite my sadness at the passage of time, I believe I will love my adult children with the same passion I loved them as babies. I am endlessly fascinated by who they are becoming and what makes them tick. I watch the little decisions they make and the comments they let fly and I smile, praying that I have done enough to earn a place in their life when they become adults and have the ability to chose who they want to spend time with. I have several more years to work on that, of course; I know its not over, but still, there is something significant about this year. Instead of a family made up of two adults and three kids, we are now a family of five: two adults, two young adults and one pre-teen, who is somewhere in the middle. There are no chubby cheeks left to kiss goodbye and no hands begging to be held. There are hand waves, high fives and quick hugs and I am grateful for every one of them.
I was doing fine today, leaving Molly at De Portola Middle School, a little nostalgic perhaps, but nothing that was going to slow me down, that is, until I got in the car and turned on the radio. Coming out at me from across the airwaves was Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” and I had to pull over, because I started to cry.
It isn’t the lyrics; it isn’t the tune; it isn’t even Richie’s velvet voice that brings me to tears.
It’s just that that song holds the essence of longing to me, the finality of goodbye.
Twenty-two years ago this month, I said good-bye and left my first-born daughter at Mercy Hospital in the arms of a social worker, who would place her in the arms of her parents the next day. The nurse took me out in a wheel chair and I got in my mother’s car. I purposely turned on the radio, knowing that the song playing would forever be linked to that moment for me and I heard Lionel Richie sing,
“I know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain.
Girl, I’m leaving you tomorrow.
Seems to me girl you know I’ve done all I can.
You see I’ve begged, stole and I borrowed,
That’s why I’m easy, easy like a Sunday morning.”
The song went on that day and it went on today as well and I let it wash over me. I let my heart feel what it wanted to feel, before I let my head get involved and clean up the mess.
Maybe the timing of the two songs, decades apart, was a coincidence, but maybe it was an invitation from the universe, then and now, to say goodbye. I never experienced with Sarah the first era, the one I am saying farewell to now with the three children I am privileged to raise. Time never went slowly with her; our day together was gone in the blink of an eye, but I cherished every moment of it, so maybe today I was given a reminder to be grateful for the long slow crawl through poopy diapers and messy art projects, as well as the one I am embarking on now of intellectual and moral questioning and challenges.
Coincidence, or fate, I am thankful that song came on, bringing me back to myself, to my life and my choices, my past and future. It reminded to not cling to what was, nor insist on what has not yet unfolded. It centered me in the Now, the day before me with my family, friends and work.
I hope yours is as good one as mine is surely turning out to be.
Ideally, a Father’s Day post would have gone up yesterday, but it wasn’t until I spent the day celebrating the father of my children that I really knew what I wanted to say. It’s not that I didn’t know he was a great dad; it’s just that sometimes I forget exactly why we are so lucky to have him in our lives. Sometimes the beauty of a thing gets lost in the everydayness of it all.
Through death and divorce, Tim grew up with little “fathering,” so when we had our own kids, he was a unsure about his abilities in that area. Very little had been imprinted on him about what it meant to be a “dad,” so for better or worse, he made most of it up as he went along. Luckily, he’s great at improv.
Yesterday, as we spent time together as a family and the kids took turns saying a few words about what they appreciate about Tim as a dad, I realized how they centered on the same themes.
“You are always there for me.”
“I can talk to you about anything.”
“You make me feel better when I’m sad.”
“You are my best friend.”
I know that the loss of a father affects a child in deep ways and I think, in Tim, many of them remain unhealed and always will. However, out of the absence, Tim has found deep presence. He has found a way to become the man he wished he had been raised by.
He is thoughtful, intentional and gentle, funny, playful and smart, but more than anything, he is present – for practices and games, dinners and bedtimes. He is there for basketball out front and swimming in the back, Saturdays at the beach and Sundays at church. He is there for late night conversations and early morning surf sessions. Success to him will never be about having the most money, but spending the most time. Through experience, he knows that every day is precious, that nothing is guaranteed, and that these relationships are the only things that really matter.
As adults, I think we have to both overcome and live up to the parenting we received. This is true if we ever have children of our own or not. What our parents did well, as mothers, fathers, or human beings, we want to emulate. Where they failed, we have to forgive and if at all possible, do better. It’s the only way we will be free and the only hope we have for making this world a better place.
My cousin and fellow blogger, Allison Sebastiani, recently started a campaign called Gratitude Mondays. Each week, she publicly thanks someone who has had an impact on her life. I loved her idea, but I didn’t make a public promise to do the same. It was a nice invitation, but I didn’t think it was meant for me. I was wrong. Before the week was out, I received my very own invitation made up of one part coincidence, two parts gratitude, and whatever parts are left over to humility.
The kids and I were visiting Huntington Beach last weekend and my brother invited us to go to church with his family on Sunday evening. As I sat in the back row of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, my mind drifted to memories of a boy I used to know. He was tall, redheaded, freckle-faced, funny, sweet and kind. He wasn’t just any boy. He was my date to junior prom and senior homecoming, though not my date to anything in between. As teenage girls are known to do, I liked him and then I didn’t. I wanted to go out with him and then “something suddenly came up.” I am not proud of the way I handled my friendship with him, but at the time, it seemed perfectly acceptable. At 17, hormones and emotions ruled the day.
As I sat in his childhood parish, Allison’s “Thank You” challenge came to mind and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this now 40-year-old man, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. I never planned to write this blog, but I knew what I would like to tell him if I ever got a chance. I would like to tell him that he holds a place in my heart as one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met. He was my first model of what a gentle man is and what a gentle man does, a model I used to judge just about every man I dated after him. (Thank goodness Tim passed with flying colors!) I would like this man to know that his smile made my day, day after day, at Mater Dei. I would like him to know that his quirky sense of humor, his ability to be himself, his kindness to his family, friends and strangers were all things I appreciated about him. I would like him to know that being asked to those dances, getting dressed up and spending those evenings with him are some of my fondest high school memories.
At one point in our friendship, he gave me a picture of himself as a toddler and from that moment on, I always hoped to have a redheaded, freckle-faced little boy of my own. Though I never got the hair, Finn’s freckles are part of what makes him my pride and joy.
So as I sat and kneeled and stood and sang, my heart filled up like a helium balloon with thankfulness for who this man was and the role he played in my teenage life. He was just so good and I wondered how I could track him down and tell him so.
But of course, I didn’t have to. As I walked into the communion aisle, who was coming out of the pew directly across from me at the exact same time? My redheaded friend, of course! I about jumped out of my skin I was so excited. I mean, GOD IS GOOD! This is the invitation I had been waiting for – the chance to tell him all the things I want him to know! This is awesome, I thought to myself and then I immediately punched him in the arm to get his attention, just like I used to in high school. He looked up from his holy reverie, shocked, because really, no one expects to get punched in the communion line, but come on! It’s been twenty years! He looked at me with really big eyes and kind of half-smiled and then returned his focus to the little space in front of him, occupied by his wife and their 3 young children. He seemed a little nonplussed to see me after so long, but that’s okay, I thought, because he doesn’t know what’s coming! He doesn’t know that I have a heart full of gratitude and a bunch of nice things to say to his wife about him. He doesn’t know any of that, but as soon as mass is over, he will!
I kept an eye on him to find where they were sitting. I planned to run over as soon as the last song ended. I pointed him out to my kids, who have seen his picture in old photo albums. Keara giggled and said, “That’s your ginger, mom?” with a huge smile on her face. They were excited to meet an old friend of mine.
But a funny thing happened before the last song ended. He left! He and his wife and his three darling, freckle-faced kids walked out of the building, without once looking my way to even nod, or wave goodbye. And as I watched them walk away, all the air got sucked out of my helium balloon of happiness. I went from walking on air to concrete boots. Part of it was that I wouldn’t have a chance to express my gratitude, but part of it was my wounded pride. In my fervor, I assumed my feelings would be reciprocated, at least in some small way. Though I didn’t expect the same level of excitement, I thought I might generate a friendly feeling, or maybe even a glimmer of curiosity about what I’d been up to all this time. And although I can’t know for sure what was going on in his mind, I don’t think I warranted a second thought. And that makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me any less thankful, which is why I’m writing this blog.
I wish I could tell you his name and post our prom picture, so I could give him the credit I think he deserves. I wish I could use social media to track him down, but after the way our chance encounter played out, I have a feeling the publicity wouldn’t be welcome. Back in high school, our song was the 80s hit “I’d Melt With You,” but apparently it’s been replaced by Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He might like it better, but I don’t think it has quite the same ring to it.
What I need to remember is that gratitude is a gift – to us. It makes our hearts larger, softer and more open to life. It makes us bigger, kinder, more positive people. Expressions of gratitude are a gift we give to other people and as gifts, they can be accepted or rejected. We can’t force it down their throat. A lot depends on who’s offering, but it doesn’t change the fact that the attitude of gratitude (pardon the cliché) is what’s most important.
I limped out of St. Bonaventure with my thwarted plans and busted-up ego. I called Tim and told him the story and he laughed with (or at) me (I’m not sure) and I felt better. I had dinner with my kids, my parents and my lovely little nieces. I laughed and loved and was grateful for their company and I was able to tell them so. I hope someday to be able to tell my redheaded friend as well, but first I have to make him stick around long enough to listen to me.