One of my fond Christmas memories is of my dad sitting by our living room fireplace wrapping and addressing his Christmas gifts to his workers and others with whom he had a working relationship. He was a horticulturalist and his company was on the North Shore where there were many fine estates and special gardens. He was good at designing views and helping the owners of the estates and their caretakers maintain their trees and shrubs.
His gifts ranged from cartons of cigarettes to bottles of whiskey and included neckties and other smaller items of clothing. Some were for the gardeners of the estates, some for those who worked under his supervision. His men and their foreman got the more expensive gifts. Each one was carefully wrapped and labeled. When I grew old enough to help him I delighted in doing so. All things having to do with Christmas have always been special to me.
Many years ago, on the advice of a spiritual teacher, I began cultivating an attitude of gratitude. This practice has since become much more popular, featured in books and by Oprah, on Facebook groups and on a variety of other sites. There is even a lovely, inspiring site devoted to the expression of gratitude called Gratitude.org. It features all sorts of good news together with thoughtful comments and teachings, as well as poetry.
As Stephen and I drove home after delivering the last plate of Christmas gift cookies, I thought how grateful I was to have an opportunity to acknowledge as my dad did, the kindness of those who had been of help. My token plates of cookies seem a small return for all that these people have done for us, yet they are at least a tangible offering on the alter of my gratitude.
Also, since I was a small child I have been the recipient of much for which I am grateful now, even though at the time I was not aware of the benefit. When I have the opportunity to do so, I acknowledge in my heart those who have been kind to me in the past as well as in the present. Some of them have passed out of my life and some have simply passed away. I remember them with gratitude and say a prayer for their happiness wherever they may be.
Thanksgiving is a fine time to be aware of that for which we are grateful, yet Christmas is my opportunity to express that gratitude in a tangible way to those whose generosity I hope to acknowledge. My life would not be what it is without the help I have received along the ways Those who have in the past, those in the present and even those in the future deserve my thanks as well as whatever I can do to pay it forward in gratitude for those who are too far for me to bring them cookies.
When I was growing up we usually said grace only at Thanksgiving, Christmas or on other very special occasions. I don’t remember any special discussion of gratitude in my family. God was often presented as a punitive figure, rather like my dad—as in or God will punish you for that, see if He doesn’t, and “Just wait until I tell your father what you did…” The church I grew up with emphasized being sorry for one’s sins and saying prayers for the protection and preservation of my family and myself. All that changed when I was in my mid thirties and I learned about the virtue of gratitude and its importance for a happy life.
I began giving thanks on a daily basis after a phone conversation with a wise older friend. She told me that rather than complain about what I thought I was lacking, I needed to be grateful for what I did have: good food to eat, a roof over my head, a comfortable bed to sleep in, warm clothes to wear, and so on. She reminded me how important it was to give thanks for the simple yet necessary blessings most take for granted. I believed her. Now these many years later, I am very grateful to her. An attitude of gratitude leads to true happiness.
When we focus on whatever there is in our lives that brings happiness, healing, kindness or friendship we are emphasizing that aspect in our lives. When we complain about our difficulties we are focusing on our lacks and our problems, most of which we can do little to nothing about. There is no happiness in dwelling on our misfortunes. When we do emphasize what is good in our lives it seems magically to increase. Giving thanks for that which we have as well as that which we do not have is an important key to a good life.
Gratitude for the bounty in our lives has been the theme of harvest celebrations throughout the ages. The Pilgrims did not host the first Thanksgiving ever, just their first one here in this country. Giving thanks to a higher power is common to nearly every religious or spiritual path. Most have some kind of ceremony to honor the powers that be that provide them with support and sustenance. After all, if the rains do not fall or the sun does not shine our food will not grow. Not a gardener myself, I know how grateful I am to the market and the farmstand that provide me with good, fresh food.
More than anything else I am grateful for the love that has come to me over the years. I have been extremely fortunate in the people I have met and with whom I have had the opportunity to interact. My friends, past, present and even future are important to me. I am thankful for each and every one. While some of those for one reason or another have vanished from my life, the experience of their past love remains to bless me with its warmth and the joyful memories of our happy times together. I am grateful for that good and for the dear ones still in my life.
When my children were young we used to gather colorful leaves and iron them between pieces of waxed paper to preserve them. There is something magical about the wonderful colors of fall leaves. They are everywhere, now, and people echo their beauty with doorstep pots of chrysanthemums in yellow, red, gold and rust. When I was growing up people didn’t decorate for fall or Halloween. People gave parties—I remember one year my parents gave one for adults. This was once also a popular time for divination games, which often centered around finding one’s true love.
I am enchanted by the colors of the trees at this time of year. I could almost believe that if I were pulled over by a policeman I might appear intoxicated. That’s a joke, of course, as for many years my body has not tolerated more than a sip or two of alcohol, and that only on rare occasions. No, what I would be drunk on is the beauty that glows along the roadsides. As I drive around on my errands these days, the slanting rays of the autumn sun shine through the reds and golds of the turning leaves, leaving me breathless.
I feel fortunate that I have the eyes to see it and the heart to appreciate it. I remember a conversation I had once with someone who was chronically depressed. When I said something about the beauty around us she shrugged and told me she couldn’t really appreciate it. Although she didn’t say it I could tell that she was simply too sad to do so. Her mind was totally preoccupied with her troubles and sorrows. I felt for her.
The gorgeous display that is the essence of a fall in New England is something many people travel here to see. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to live in this part of the USA. Nearly thirty years ago, before we moved to Grafton I spent seven years in Virginia. While we were there I found that the leaves that turned did not do so with much intensity, and I missed the brilliance of our autumn very much. When a great many years ago I was in southwest Texas in the fall I felt the same. I was three I have lived here in New England since I was three years old, and perhaps it is in my blood. One thing is sure: each year I look forward eagerly to the changing of the season and the beautiful colors.
One of the houses we lived in had a window that looked out over a very special Maple tree. The colors that brightened the leaves would begin with a single branch, sometimes as early as late August. How I enjoyed it when that patch of leaves burst into color. The loveliness of nature in autumn warms my heart in a way that enlivens my whole being. I am so very thankful for this special gift of loveliness, free for the gazing, billowing over the hills and presenting on yards: our New England fall.
When I was a child one of my favorite occupations was to rearrange my mother’s pantry shelves. I delighted in doing this. It seems to me that I was born with a need to accomplish. In many ways, this has been a source of my happiness and a way of making myself feel good. I can remember when I was a young mother that time spent in the kitchen helped to heal any disappointment or dismay. Baking cookies for my children did wonders for my spirits and helped keep me cheerful. Even simple tasks like the ironing I did then were useful to me in lifting my spirits.
I learned long ago that whenever my spirits need lifting I have a choice. Beyond dwelling on whatever it is that may be bothering me, I can seek happiness or I can stop and look around me for something to be grateful for or to enjoy. When I do I have taken a significant step toward being kind to myself as well as making myself feel better. But there is more: I can keep reminding myself to take note of the many things to appreciate that surround me. My happiness is made up of small smiles harvested daily.
While the link between accomplishment and happiness is still strong within me, this other link is even stronger: the opportunities to notice what makes me happy. It functions for me whenever I notice whatever is beautiful around me; it is delivered in the joy I receive when I walk with Stephen in the mornings and listen to the birds twittering and chirping around us. When I get a phone call or an email from a friend I haven’t seen or heard from for a while, my heart fills and I smile. I feel happy when I read the morning newspaper and find interesting stories from it to share with my husband.
It is truly said that happiness does not work as a goal. If for instance I buy something I have wanted, it may make me happy for a little while yet that kind of happiness does not last. Not unlike taking a drink of alcohol or indulging in sweets, the good feelings gained this way dwindle soon. This diminishment is one of the stimuli for addictive behavior. Once the good feeling is gone it is normal to wish for more in order to regain or prolong it. This experience leads many people to practice self-destructive behaviors.
However, the happiness that comes from the appreciation of what is given is not addictive nor can it be sought. It comes from the practice of awareness, of noticing some small joy or gladness that comes to us as a kind of gift. It also helps to have an understanding of what makes us feel happy so that we can take extra care to notice it when it is given to us. I must open my eyes and ears to notice the beauty around me in order to appreciate it. I need to remember to look out the window to see the lovely sunset when it glows there. This kind of happiness lasts beyond the experience and nourishes me always.
I remember my great grandmother’s ear trumpet. It was a long instrument, flared at one end. She held the small end to her ear. I also remember a black box the size and shape of a thick brick that had a cord running from sitting on a table that must have been an early hearing instrument. My grandmother wore a case the sizes of a slim cigarette pack clipped to the front of her dress with a cord connected between it and a button in her ear. There was a dial on the box she could turn on and off.
My dad used to say she turned it off when she didn’t want to hear what was being said. I remember as a child thinking how handy that must be. Aids to hearing have come a very long way since then. As people age, much like the normal need for eyeglasses to address a lessening of vision, so too there is a need for aids to hearing. Unfortunately these are extremely expensive compared to eyeglasses. Hopefully one day this will change.
Because of the deafness that seemed to run in my family, I was not surprised when my own hearing began to diminish. I found I needed to have the TV on louder. It was helpful to watch movies on DVD with subtitles, especially when the actors had British accents. If Stephen spoke to me and I was in the other room I had to get closer to him to hear what he was telling me.
Ambient noise interfered with my understanding of words; parties were less fun. My children noticed and suggested I get hearing aids. Still, I wasn’t sure I really needed them, or so I thought. Then as luck would have it I was gifted with a set. My daughter offered me her late mother-in-law’s hearing aids. I am very glad I said yes. It has been an adventure for me to use them. I find myself marveling at sounds I have not really heard before, or not for a long time.
I remember my mother telling me that when my grandmother put on her new hearing aid and went outdoors she said, “What’s all that noise?” It was the birds chirping. She had not heard birds for many years. My ears have not been that bad. I have been able to hear more or less, just not clearly. I notice the difference with the aids: without them, it’s like I have water in my ears. With them when I turn on the sink faucet, I hear splashes and ripples. When I unwrap paper it crackles. The stove timer sounds shrill. I hear sounds I didn’t before.
In the past when I thought about getting hearing aids I felt somewhat uncomfortable. I expected them to be clumsy, perhaps difficult to manage. None of this has proved true. Today’s aids are quite different from those of my grandmother’s or even of recent times. They are virtually invisible. I am very grateful to my daughter for her thoughtfulness, and I look forward to learning more about the new world I am hearing. As I have come to appreciate the clarity I get from wearing eyeglasses, now I enjoy the adventure of listening to a new and different world.
When I began to meditate I noticed that I was much more aware of the contents of my mind. The longer I practiced meditation, the better I became at following my thoughts. This ability has grown for me over the years, and I am very grateful to be able to be aware most of the time of what I am thinking. The reason this is so important is that it enables me to monitor my mental focus.
The importance of mental focus cannot be overstated. Certain habit patterns are built into the human psyche. They are intrinsic, an inborn aspect of our consciousness. They are intended to function as a kind of safety mechanism for keeping us alive. One of these is the “fight or flight” response. As you may know, the human body is programmed to react to any perceived threat with the appropriate input for what it believes is required.
I have read statistics to the effect that much of our modern high blood pressure as well as other stressful conditions of the physical body have come about as a result of this built in response to perceived danger. This particular response was useful in the days when death in the form of an enemy or feral beast lurked behind any bush or tree. It was important when the crocodiles in the river were patrolling for breakfast. It was helpful when the early settlers of any new homeland encountered its dangers.
Now for the most part it is not only unnecessary to modern life but actually harmful. Yet in times of perceived stress our bodies continue that response. The perceived stress could be a need to get somewhere on time or to dodge someone’s criticism as a result of inadequate preparation. It is seldom a response to a true threat of death or physical harm.
One of the main ingredients of this response is that our minds have a built in tendency to notice what is wrong. This can be very helpful if, for instance, you wake up in the night and hear sounds you know are not normal, or you suddenly notice that your child is very quiet and might therefore be up to some mischief. However, as a general rule, consistently noticing what is wrong can lead to a focus upon it that prevents us from seeing what is right and good.
When I practice actively looking for all for which I am grateful, I am much less apt to be focused on what may be wrong. If there is real danger or a need to notice that something is amiss, I know I can and will. However for the most part when I focus on that for which I am grateful, I am much less focused on the negative thinking that can lead to any number of difficulties. The key to success is being mindful of the direction of my thoughts. That way I can reinforce my positive focus or change the direction of my thoughts if I need to.
I was fortunate in that I learned fairly early in life to practice my attitude of gratitude. There were two experiences in my life that prompted me to do this. One came in the form of a telephone call from a friend and teacher telling me to be grateful and to say this prayer of gratitude daily: Beloved Lord I do greatly thank Thee for the abundance that is mine.” When I protested she said sternly, “You have much to be grateful for–a roof over your head, food to eat, people who love you, now do as I say and repeat that prayer at least three times daily.” Because I respected her, I did as she suggested.
That was the beginning. Then I encountered mysterious woman at a spiritual gathering who told me a little about myself and then said, “Never take anything for granted.” Her words gave me pause and have resonated in my life ever since. At the time I did not know that my entire life would change radically within weeks. And while it changed for the better, almost everything in my life as I knew it then disappeared to be replaced by new and different circumstances. Nothing could have prepared me for that, however I was blessed to move through it to a new life for which ever since I have been grateful.
That was a great many years ago; and much time has passed with many experiences lived through. As I have moved through them I have grown in the expression of my gratitude. Nowadays when I turn on the shower on a cold winter evening and climb into its warmth, I give thanks. Although they may not live close to me, there are many who do not have the luxury of hot water from a faucet. When I cuddle my clean cotton sheets and the warm covers on my bed around me, I think of, and send a prayer for those who are homeless and have little to comfort them in the cold.
An attitude of gratitude as we are often reminded by teachers from Oprah to Eckert Tolle is one of the pillars for the foundation of a happy life. My own personal experience has proved this to be true. I have also learned to realize how important it is to be grateful for that which at first seems less than fortuitous. However in general I prefer to focus on those things that bring me joy rather than those that do not, even while being grateful for those as well.
Small and simple pleasures–a phone call from one’s child or grandchild, the wagging tail of a treasured animal companion, the smile of a neighbor encountered unexpectedly in the supermarket, or the friendly help of a stranger in locating a hard to find item–these lovely, serendipitous experiences provide a splendid symphony of joy. As I live my life, it plays in the background as an accompaniment to my everyday doings. Listening to it I am reminded again and again to be grateful.