In 1998 my marriage ended. My son was only three years old and I was worried how he would cope with the change. I had a health crisis, and to top it all off I had come to an impasse in my career. Though my doctorate was nearly finished, I clearly no longer wanted to be a professor. I needed to find a job as soon as possible to support myself and my son, but I had no idea what to do long term. It felt like my world was falling apart. The support of friends, my congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunyvale, CA), and my mother helped me make it through that year.
Following the simple instructions in my mother's gift helped strengthen me spiritually. Sarah Ban Breathnach recommends writing down five things you are grateful for each night. That seems easy enough, but sometimes it was tough. Some days, my list was having 1. a roof over my head, 2. food to eat, 3. clothes to wear, 4. the health of my son, and 5. the love of my friends. Actually, that’s a pretty good list. Too many people do not have those things.
The really amazing (dare I say “miraculous?”) thing was that over time and with practice five items were not enough, even on the worst days. There were days when my list took up a whole page because I had begun looking at the world with new eyes. I began noticing small things that brought me comfort – a tree in the sunlight, the taste of my morning tea. I managed to find moments of joy even in the midst of turmoil.
Writing a gratitude list each night led me to start journaling every morning, a practice I keep to this day. Shortly after I began journaling I started waking up with poems in my head and wrote them in my journal. This was a surprise because I had stopped writing poetry years before, during a previous period of loss and grief. After my father died in 1984 writing poetry brought so much pain and grief to the surface that I couldn't cope. I stopped writing rather than face all those difficult feelings.
Later I learned that avoiding the pain was not a great strategy because, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "the grief will out." It catches up to you, or at least it did me. By the time of my divorce, I decided it's better to face the pain as much as you can. Writing poetry helped that happen. In a sense, I wrote myself through that loss.
Writing poetry, journaling, practicing gratitude, and allowing others to support me transformed my life during that difficult year. In the fall of 1999, about a year after my ex-husband moved out, I finished my doctoral dissertation and entered seminary to study to become a minister.
As Hanukkah and Christmas approach, as we are tempted to go "all out" and spend too much on elaborate presents, it may be good to remember that a simple gift can have a profound effect. So I offer my mother's gift to you. In the coming weeks, write down five things for which you are grateful each night. You don't have to commit to doing it every night forever and ever; try doing it for three weeks. You may start noticing how many gifts your life already holds.