This past year, I discovered the joys of coffee in bed on my weekend mornings. In fact I started this blog post during my last coffee in bed session of 2017. It feels luxurious and lazy – two things I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being, which assuages any Yankee guilt I feel about the chores that await. In the personal and political chaos of 2017, I’m grateful for this new ritual. I use the time to read, write, or just watch the damn (albeit cute) House Sparrows in the privet outside.
I think I like doing this so much because I had one of those years where I had to catch my breath over and over again. Probably not unlike yours, maybe worse in some ways, maybe better in others. I am now six months out from a breakup that should have been simple, but complicated my life in ways I could not have foreseen. It dredged up every last fear I have about trusting people, but I am working on it, and moving on. Then, in November, a dear friend parted this earth way too soon, leaving me – and so many people I love dearly – aching, and stunned.
With the year closing out, I am, like many of you, looking back, taking stock, and counting blessings.
Gratitude is a practice that is based in comparison. It may seem a morbid thing to do, but when things go badly, it helps to remind ourselves how much worse it could have been. It can work like the switch on a flashlight, forcing us to shine a light on our relative good luck. Sheryl Sandberg calls it the “gratitude for what’s left”, and it can offer perspective when things seem too much to bear.
I have done this, and I know my year could have been worse, and I am truly grateful for what is left.
The worst part of this year was watching people use this concept to dismiss each other’s experiences. I got a small dose of this in my personal life, but more so when I paid attention to the news. The term “snowflake” was flung around far too much. The lack of empathy was heart wrenching to witness.
In the best case scenario, people want to convince you that things weren’t really “that bad” or “could have been worse”, out of love, because they genuinely want us to be happy. In the worst case, it’s because our suffering is an affront to their happiness, or a threat to their fantasies about this country.
But perspective and gratitude don’t make pain disappear – they are more like dressings for our wounds, not a miraculous tincture that seals them up. Healing takes so much more than that – like empathy, self-care, and time.
I know the whole gratitude thing can seem like some cult-ish fad, or a pollyannaish thing to do. I’m not saying it cures all, and I certainly don’t want to oversimplify. I speak from my own experience though, and how it helped me heal from a panic disorder 7 years ago.
I took up a practice of gratitude back then, alongside therapy, exercise, meditation, and yes, some Xanax too. If I’m honest, writing a list of things I was grateful for seemed silly, and no match for a disorder that felt like it might literally kill me at times. I was overwhelmed by bitterness about the factors that brought on the disorder, and felt grateful for nothing, but I was willing to try.
So I started with the basics – like sidewalks. I walked 4-6 miles a day back then, because it was the only time I felt some reprieve from my racing heart and mind. Sidewalks made that safer, and easier, so, on the list it went. It took a few weeks, but I eventually realized that taking stock of the basics made sense, and was a good starting point. Over time, it helped chip away at the lies that anxiety tells, and it gave me real ground to stand on while I continued the work that eventually lead to recovery.
My point being: I have experienced the power of its practice. But I sometimes forget. I sometimes fumble around in the darkness, especially in years like 2017. And even though January 1st is an arbitrary date that holds no significance in astronomy or nature, I find the symbolism a new year difficult to resist. And what’s wrong anyhow, with taking time to reflect on what has transpired? Or with moving forward with hope and well wishes in our hearts, for ourselves and everyone around us?
And while I’ve shared this quote before, in another New Years’ post I think, I’ll share it again because it says it better than I can:
“…onward full-tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another–that is surely the basic instinct…Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson
And then I’ll just leave you with one more thing – something a dear friend sent me on Saturday, while I was enjoying my second-to-last coffee in bed of 2017. This is the same friend who I spent last Christmas with while her world fell apart, and she too had a rough year, but is doing much better. It was so thoughtful of her, and so perfectly timed.
If I have learned anything this year, it is that I won’t ever be ready for what life throws at me.
I won’t have the right words when it counts;
I won’t know what to choose when fate itself is staring at me down.
But now I know I don’t always need to have the right answer.
I’ve learned I can go on waiting for something,
sustained by hope and nothing more — or I can put it aside and shrug my shoulders.
Bravely accept the fact that I can’t keep my heart safe anymore than I can stop love from taking everything from me.
I have learned to stop saying yes when I don’t mean it — to live as authentically as I know how.
To allow the tips of my fingers to skirt the darkness, as long as I remember to keep my eyes fixed on the light.
And as one door opens and another closes, I will move forward with the knowledge that unlike so many others, I have another year ahead of me — another shot at making it all the way around the sun,
And a chance to get it right this time round.
I’m grateful we all have another “shot at making it all the way around the sun”, and wish you all love and peace in the year ahead.
More food, less pain,