Tag Archives: gratitude

A Room and a View

When I tell people that I have an amazing view from my apartment in New Haven, they usually respond with some skepticism. As in, “Really? What can you see in New Haven?”

My poor part-time city. It doesn’t get a lot of respect as a scenic destination.

My apartment faces north. And, it is on the 26th floor of one of the tallest buildings in town. And, I have floor-to-ceiling windows that make my tiny space feel much bigger than it actually is.

And, dominating my vista is a spectacular geologic formation. East Rock is a 200-million year old trap-rock ridge. Its peak is 366 feet above sea level. It is comprised mostly of diabase, a mineral compound that oxidizes when exposed to air (I looked it up), turning the face a beautiful shade of reddish-brown. All of the non-rocky surfaces are crowded with oak, elm, and maple trees. Since we’re in Connecticut, and it’s October, you can imagine the colors out my window this week. But why just imagine, when I can share the sunset view from my living room on Monday evening?

IMG_0145What can you see in New Haven? Well, I can see this.

And also (because I seem to be beginning most of the sentences in this post with the word and), just to give you a bit more perspective on the whole “Views in New Haven” concept, consider the following. This is the view from East Rock looking downtown.

IMG_0147This photo was taken one week before the sunset shot above. You can see across the top of the Yale campus and out to Long Island Sound.

I love my part-time city.

Tuned In

One of the many reasons I love my job: The Head of School has initiated a “happiness group” among the faculty and staff. A couple of weeks ago, she sent a link to a TED talk by psychologist Shawn Achor, which has been viewed countless times and which, no doubt, has inspired countless people to re-think their ideas about success, satisfaction, and daily experiences. Toward the end of his talk, Dr. Achor offers suggestions for five daily practices that have been proven to raise our level of happiness:

  • Naming 3 “gratitudes” each day
  • Keeping a journal
  • Exercising
  • Meditation
  • Performing random acts of kindness

One of our 7th grade teachers had brought the talk to the head of school with the thought, “wouldn’t this be a great message to share with our middle school students?”

Of course, it’s a great idea. But before we bring it to the kids, our wise head of school said, let’s offer a challenge to the adults in the community. Let’s see if we can raise our own happiness quotients.

And so, our “happiness group” was born. More than two dozen people volunteered to choose one or more of Achor’s behaviors, and make a 21-day commitment to stick with it. We’ll all be checking in with ourselves and each other during the next three weeks as we try to make happiness a habit.

I like to think of myself as a generally happy person, and I think I try to seek opportunities to discover happiness in my day–but couldn’t we all be a bit more mindful about finding the good in our lives?

http://on.ted.com/f0U0c

Hearts Full

On any given day, hundreds of thousands of children are born on Earth. Each of them is a small miracle, and for the purposes of this post, let us imagine those babies being welcomed and embraced as they take their first breaths. Let us hold in our minds the idea that every one of those children is wanted, cherished, and precious.

A few weeks ago, a little boy surprised his parents and arrived much sooner than he was expected. The universe aligned for him, and for them; he is healthy, beautiful, and thriving. In less than a month, he has attracted a large crowd of admirers, including me. His blissful mama told me that she can’t believe how much time she spends just staring at him. Today, as an infant, he breathes–calmly, or in short little breaths. He startles, and his arms tense. His little forehead furrows and his mouth makes a small o. Everything about him is absolutely fascinating, and he is the only person she has known for his entire existence. What she doesn’t realize yet is that she will never stop being amazed when she looks at her child. There is no comparable experience. It is simultaneously heart-stopping and dizzyingly fierce.

Also this month, another friend invited me to join her for a once-in-a-lifetime shopping trip: looking for a wedding gown with her and her daughter. I was–I still am— incredibly honored to have been included in such a special morning. The joy and excitement of the outing, and what it represents as a milestone, provided a happy undercurrent while we were surrounded by acres of tulle, lace, satin, and silk. However, the moment that made my eyes sting was when this woman looked at her child in what will probably become her single-most-photographed piece of clothing. In an eternal split second, she saw her daughter in one of those rare past-present-future glimpses that make our most intimate relationships timeless.

The title of this post was a hashtag emphasis posted by my college roommate and lifelong comrade in the journey of life. She had just established her eldest in his first apartment, ready to begin his professional life. “He is launched,” she wrote with bittersweet pride. I keep thinking about her thoughts during that weekend. How many times did she catch herself staring at him the same way she did when he was a newborn? Which of his small gestures or facial expressions took her instantly to the time when he was two, or five, or eleven years old? When did she find herself totally still, absorbing the reality of his adulthood?

These people who become adults always start out as tiny newborns. Of the many billions who presently share the planet, I offer you three as reasons to smile. With much love and gratitude to them and their families for bringing joy to me and mine.

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 

 

That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

DICOM Frame 2

This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.

photo

There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Proportions

Yesterday was The Boy’s birthday. He’s 14 now.

The length of his lifespan computes to approximately 29% of my own life. In this case, statistical calculations do not offer an appropriate representation of the value of those fourteen years. For fourteen years and eight months, The Boy’s existence has been central to my own. Since the moment I found out about him, he has been a cherished and essential element of my daily consciousness. My transformation from individual traveler in the Universe to  parenthood is one of the greatest and most humbling changes I have ever experienced. In my case, this identity shift occurred by choice and deliberate action, and was sanctioned by a religiously and federally-approved marriage with an equally committed co-parent. It is, however, precisely the same gift that my friends and neighbors have experienced through adoption, gamete donation, family blending, and devotion to the people with whom we have all formed homes.

Love makes a family.

If you are lucky, you are a member of a family formed by love. If you are loved, you are statistically more likely to succeed in life.

This statement begs the question: How do we define success?

If you have found this blog post, some portion of our society has already defined you as “successful.” Rest assured, I am not arrogant enough to think that reading my blog is a mark of success. Access to any site such as this one, however, is an indication of a certain type of cultural capital. You are literate. You have the means to use a computer and a link to the Internet. Depending on the time of day that you are reading this digital missive, you have probably eaten at least one healthy meal today. I hope that you slept in a warm bed last night, and that in the past 24 hours, someone has told you that you are loved. If you are loved, you are not alone. If you love, someone else is not alone.

I’m writing this post on a Sunday night. Over the weekend, we have spent time with The Husband and The Boy, with my very best friend and her daughter, with four of The Boy’s closest buddies, with one of our dearest friends, and with my parents. I spoke to my precious niece. All of these people are part of our family. It’s a family formed by love. It’s a family formed by choice. The Boy chose the people he wanted to be a part of his birthday weekend. He chose well.

My boy is 14. He loves, and is loved. He has a family, built through biology and choice. There is no percentage or numerical exercise to determine the value of the people in his lives. There is no greater gift.

Coming Unraveled

Did you know that the words ravel and unravel mean the same thing? Merriam-Webster explains that they are both transitive verbs that relate to the process of separating the strands or threads in a woven material. When I checked the dictionary before I started this post, I was hoping  and expecting that ravel meant the opposite of unravel. Part of my interest was poetic; I wanted the perfect label for the topic of this post. Also, though, it just seemed right and logical that if one word starts with un-, it should mean the opposite of the root word that follows the prefix. Once again, the English language baffles us.

I wanted a word that means “pull together.” I hoped that ravel was the correct one. The best word for my reflections today is probably knit, which is ironic, because I can’t. Knit, that is. But the word carries so many relevant connotations that I’m going to leave it there. It’s the metaphor I want, after all.

About five years ago, my friend Carol made me a pair of socks. They are among the most treasured gifts anyone has ever given me. Part of their value certainly rests in the fact that Carol died, too soon and too young, more than a year ago. But whenever I wear those socks, they bring her right back. I love those socks because the best gifts we can ever give are the ones that show how well we know someone. Carol and I worked together for ten years. We shared stories about our sons, recipes for stews, risotto, breads, and fresh vegetables. We knew each other’s favorite books. We shared our own special bond around the change of seasons in New England, choosing the date and temperature when we would start, or stop, wearing socks for the year. My soft, colorful, warm wool pair were a recognition of my Friday footwear: Dansko clogs in purple or orange leather, fuschia felt, or bright blue suede. Carol was a clog-wearer, too, and she loved my bold end-of-week choices.

Carol was an avid knitter. She could transform  a skein of yarn into practically anything. She was the go-to guru at our school whenever anyone was having trouble with a stitch gauge, a color selection, or a pattern choice. She was there for all of us who a needed a companion for a late afternoon of needlework or quiet talk. She held onto secrets, provided wise advice, and made us laugh. I am not the only one who misses her every day. She was one of the strands that held our community together. If you are a part of a group that is bound by someone like Carol, you know how lucky you are.

In my extended family, my dad is one of those strands. As his generation ages, his role has become more evident to him and to everyone else. My father grew up in a time and a place where his best friends were also his first cousins. They spent their childhoods in each other’s living rooms and backyards, played high school sports together, swam together at the beach all summer, engaged in who-knows-what-kinds of mischief, served as each other’s best men and as the godfathers of their respective children. They  played golf, went to college sports events,  met for Wednesday breakfasts, and lately, have sat in hospital rooms. Gradually, they are leaving us. One of those guys, Neal, died last week. My father was with him 20 minutes before he passed. On his way home, my dad took three calls on his mobile phone. His was the first voice that Neal’s eldest son, daughter, and sister needed to hear as they processed their loss.

My son, The Boy, was with my parents for the weekend before Neal died. He saw my dad preparing for the imminent news, and he felt the depth of my father’s grief. When Neal died that Tuesday, The Boy said, “I have to call Papa.” He understood what it meant for my father to be that strand.

We are all bound to other people. We need those connections, and we make the ties stronger as we grow together. Those socks that Carol made–they are made of one strand of yarn. One single thread.

Tertiary Emotions

One element of my professional persona is that of psychology professor. In the comfort of that identity, I usually teach about child development. My courses include lectures and activities about physical growth and change, language acquisition, cognitive development, and the emergence of social-emotional awareness. I mention this because I’m about to write a whole post about  feelings, and I guess I want to establish a bit of credibility from the outset.

Human emotions can be categorized into three levels, which begin at a general level and become more specific as we move from primary (anger, fear, surprise, love, joy, and sadness are often listed as the core emotions) to secondary (think of affection as an aspect of love) to tertiary (think of compassion as a “next step”  after affection–an emotional response that evokes both affection and empathy).

I have written about gratitude many times in this blog. It is one of my favorite emotions. In my fortunate life, gratitude usually combines joy and love. I am grateful to so many people who have demonstrated care and affection for me. I am grateful to circumstances that have made it possible for me to receive medical attention, academic and professional success, and opportunities to experience awe in the world. I believe deeply that being open to gratitude is a mindset that is worth cultivating. Gratitude for me is connected to optimism. To be an optimistic and grateful person is, in my opinion, to be a happy individual.

In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself affirming another tertiary emotion–humility. In the context of my recent experiences, I have found that humility is directly related to gratitude. Humility requires a level of maturity and a willingness to accept my own vulnerabilities. It requires an ability to relinquish the need to be in control, a great level of trust in other people, and faith in my own values. It requires a willingness to hear the truth about myself and to accept both praise and criticism with gratitude. It makes me realize how important it is to stay grounded in the world and to hold onto the people who matter the most.