lifting the lens

I think sometimes in the midst of the bombardment of disappointments and devastation the world seems to hurl freely these days, it becomes easy to lose sight of just how much authorial control we still have within our lives. It becomes easy to unwittingly sink into helplessness and to relinquish our rights to the details of our story without even an honorarium paid. Lately, the stuff  of  life has become exceedingly good at bullying us into believing that we need a new year or a new phase of life to be able to fully enjoy and live into our existence.

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

And to sit idly, waiting for something to come along and offer immediate healing is a dangerous stance to take. In doing this we become bystanders in our own lives, rather than active participants. It is an admission and acceptance that our joy can only come from someone or someplace else. That we cannot create that for ourselves and must wait for it to be delivered on a schedule that isn’t published or even guaranteed.

In this season of giving thanks, remembering that in every circumstance we have the ability to lift the lens of gratitude rather than the scope of victimization holds the potential to restore our outlook. We have the ability to empower ourselves to seek the goodness in the scant and the beacon in the bleak. In the moments in my life in which I have felt the deepest grief and the least control over my circumstances, gratitude has unfailingly delivered a way forward while restoring my rights to the details of my own story.

There was no other way to walk toward peace after delivering a child into a world he would never know. The Oprah Show was still airing daily in the year that we lost Nathan. And you know, Oprah’s words carried weight, so when she began talking about the importance and life changing qualities of something as simple as gratitude, I paid attention. Okay, I also thought she had lost her mind. I was so deep in grief. I was so angry and for so many reasons. I was so full of shame and regret. And I couldn’t seem to let go of any of it let alone summon the strength to seek gratitude. What could I possibly have to be grateful for?

But Oprah said gratitude changed lives, so I tried it.

It wasn’t easy.

As Joy Harjo writes, “Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.” (link below)

Gratitude is an active stance and as such required total effort on my part. Without constant attention and care, without a mindfulness to lift the lens, gratitude disintegrates before it can invigorate. There is one day that the lens was lifted for me…one day that sort of changed everything. I was leaving the house of a friend who delivered her child a month or two after we lost ours, and I had to pull over because I was weeping so hard it became impossible to drive. I had just stopped in to deliver some treats and to see the sweet babe and somehow hadn’t prepared myself for the onslaught of emotion that would follow. As I sat in my car sobbing beneath the weight and complexity of loss, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was crystal blue–not a cloud to be seen–and it was stunning and somehow full of hope that things would not always be so cloudy and dim. A switch flipped. Through my tears and with a shaky voice, I spoke into gratitude (like literally out loud)–thank you for this amazing sky to remind me that there is still light in the world…there is still hope.

Everyday after that moment, as I walked the often shadowy path toward peace after loss, gratitude was my guide…my signpost. But more importantly, gratitude was my choice. Gratitude (and well, I guess Oprah too) changed my life.

So, even now, in the face of all that 2020 has delivered, in the face of chronic illness and pain, in the face of so much uncertainty and turmoil, I walk the world wielding gratitude because that is something I can control…that is something I don’t need to wait for…that is something that even in the most treacherous moments unfailingly shines a light. It is not a perfect practice and often requires effort I don’t feel like exerting, but it is a worthwhile endeavor every single day of the week.

“For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” by Joy Harjo, referenced earlier, speaks to this effort towards gratitude beautifully. Honestly, it is worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing–this poem is stunning and a gorgeous reminder. But just in case, at least I can leave you with this excerpt…

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.”

(And trust me. This is not an attempt to oversimplify of the vast weight of mental illness. I am not offering gratitude as some kind of simplistic inoculation against the depths of depression or any other depletion of mental health.  Just as a way to see a less than forgiving world)

lucky

“Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!”

(“The Schuyler Sisters”, Lin-Manuel Miranda)

So, tonight, my youngest was riding with me to the pet store because in a stroke of sheer brilliance I didn’t realize we were out of dog food until I finally got home from work around 6:00. Anyway, there we were in the car, him singing whatever song was on the radio and me sort of pouting because I really just wanted to be home curled up on my couch rather than out in traffic running an errand. Just as my internal pity party reached its crescendo, my kiddo says (just out of nowhere), “You know, mom, I feel so lucky to be born in this place at this time with all these people around me. I just feel so lucky.”

Now this sweet boy has a habit of knowing exactly what a person needs to hear and then saying it in the moment they need to hear it most. For example, in the vertigo days when the side effects from ingesting a  ridiculous dose of steroids with hopes of healing wreaked havoc on my body and on my physical appearance, my self esteem waned pretty swiftly. I spent weeks feeling lost in a futile struggle for wellness that not only seemed to make me feel worse internally but also look worse externally. One night, after a particularly uncomfortable and down day, I was putting him to sleep and he looked up at me and said, “Mom, you know who you look like? Who you remind me of?” Well, you can imagine, I was dreading the conclusion to this question. And then he said, “Cinderella! I think you look just like Cinderella.” And, I realized in that moment that it didn’t matter what I saw when I looked in the mirror because in the eyes of my four year old, I was still a princess. Don’t get me wrong. There is no given day where I look like Cinderella! But the fact that this kid somehow knew that his mom needed that sweetness that night was nothing short of remarkable to me. And that, more than the compliment, meant everything.

He has a lifetime of these moments and I find that as his empathy grows, so does his ability to read a person or a situation and to know what healing words need to be spoken. Tonight was no different.

It is so easy on any given day to feel like this world is falling to pieces…that everything is going wrong…that humanity has lost sight of its value…that having to go buy dog food instead of relaxing in my pjs is an injustice rather than an inconvenience. That negativity fuels so much of our talk that it seems to have become habit. And then there was that sweet ten year old voice–a bright light calling out into the dark of negativity–expressing a realization of his complete and profound gratitude for the blessings of the absolute privilege in his life. He knows he is loved. He knows he has a home and comforts and peace in his immediate surroundings. He knows that he is safe. And not only does he go through the world knowing these things, but he is self-aware enough to vocalize it and to be grateful for it.

I like to say that this boy of mine is my heart walking around outside of my body…his sensitivity and the way he sees the world reflecting a kindness and an empathy that I try to model, albeit imperfectly. But tonight, more than any other occasion, his gratitude in a moment when he could have just been annoyed (like I was), brought me back to the reality that he is a better version of my heart walking around outside my body. And that makes me “just feel so lucky” too.

(Day Nine–exhausted! Grateful for a kiddo who provides inspiration–even uwittingly. Also, you should know, the justifications for cheating and tasting king cake have begun. This struggle is for real you guys!)