From Badittude to Gratitude

One of my early blog posts in 2011, which asked, Can you be grateful for what you don’t have? focused on a difficult time in my life – when I was stuck in the aftermath of a divorce, and struggling to see the good in my life. I wanted to turn my frown upside down, zap it away with intention, but I couldn’t. I had a badittude I couldn’t shake, even though I said that I could.

I’ve come a long way since then, but in order to arrive at a place of authentic thankfulness and gratitude, I had to start with its opposite. I had to confront the pain and hardships. The reality of the situation, rather than whitewashing it or pretending that I was fine or happy and grateful. Had I pretended, I would have robbed myself of finding the real thing. I wouldn’t recognize the positive things in my life – that life has given me along the way – with any kind of real appreciation. Some studies have shown that “choosing gratitude can bring out the best in us and those around us.” But I don’t know if I believe that flipping a mental switch – that professing ones gratitude aloud can actually cultivate it on the inside. I think that gratitude – and its resulting easing of anxiety, release of stress, and sometimes, a true feeling of happiness – appears as a slow and cumulative result of tiny little experiences, revelations, and achievements in your life. The achievements – the physical results of gratitude, sometimes come first, as tangible manifestions of the interior growth and hard work you’ve done.gratitude

For example, a few of the things I am grateful for:

  1. My husband.  This gratitude was hard won. Meeting him and marrying him was an outgrowth of years of whining and wallowing and work and therapy and badittudeness and revelations.
  2. My home. My grownup Manhattan apartment, replete with a dining room (in Manhattan!) comes after being a wandering Jew and moving ten times in a decade, without knowing what was to come next.
  3. My family. My parents. My two sisters. While I’ve always appreciated them, only recently have I unearthed an unshakeable love and gratitude, which is evident when we talk. When we make an effort to visit each other.  When I surprise my mother for a random brunch and she screams like I’m a celebrity just stepped off a plane. When we share old photographs of our dorky adolescent selves in braces and bowl cuts and laugh over a private joke. When we are struggling with something that no one else can understand, and a phone call, followed by “Do you have five minutes?” always seems to bring about a resolution.
  4. Work. My job, which with time, investment, and loyalty only gets better.
  5. Writing.  For having finally found my calling in writing. For writing because it sooths my soul, regardless of the outcome or accolades. For craving it instead of wrestling with it.
  6. Gemma. Last but certainly not least, that old bag of sweet bones who has been my sidekick for eleven years is alive and well, and sometimes even puppyish enough to throw her kong in the air and knock over my wine glass.

[Health and peace and security… the deep thanks I have for those, and the awareness of how fleeting they are, would take up another blog post. And I’m a bit superstitious too].

It’s been ten years since I lost my gratitude, and perhaps it has taken ten years to get it back.

Or redefine it.

I can’t wait until Thursday, when my husband and I get to host our first Thanksgiving ever (in my…Dining Room!). For my parents, my sister and her husband and their three children, and for my in-laws (cue gratitude item #7. I have in-laws!). I can’t wait to set the table and make things pretty and attempt to cook the dishes I Googled (Mom’s bringing the kosher turkey though). I can’t wait for my in-laws to arrive tomorrow night and offer them an actual guest room.

I can’t wait until we go around the table and say thank you, and thank God for bringing us together. And reflect on what we are each grateful for, now, in this moment, because you never know what next year may bring.
Wishing you all a joyful Thanksgiving.


Do we see what we want to see?

I’m guessing that only my mother noticed that I skipped last week’s post, but I have a good reason.
I’m in the middle of my second book, thanks to NanoWrimo, November book writing month, which forces you to write 50,000 words in 30 days (that’s about 170 pages double-spaced, fyi). As of an hour ago, I’m at 44,000 words, but with the work week coming back with a vengeance tomorrow after the bubble of a holiday, I’m hoping I will knock out another 6,000 before Thursday. I won’t be done with this draft though, but I’m on my way.
A few months ago I wrote a post, entitled “How do we know what we need?,” and this month, I knew I needed a solitary vacation in order to write my book. A friend of mine graciously offered me her house in the Hamptons, and instead of going away with friends to a sunny locale for my first week off in a year, I rented a car and took my dog to a writing vacation.
My dog grew up in LA. She loves the slippery leather of cars, and she loves the outdoors. If only she could have helped me with directions. I couldn’t find the house at first, and it was getting dark. I circled the poorly marked streets several times, only to discover that the house was at the end of a narrow dirt road, resembling a windy hiking trail.
It was beautiful, two stories, and all glass, the large yard encircled by a chicken wire fence (which my dog promptly slammed into, before taking a retarded skate across the covered pool). After taking my bags upstairs and turning on all the lights, I realized how silent it was; just the wind rustling the trees. My stomach sank, and I had a jolt of apprehension thinking of whether I would fall asleep that night. “This is the setting for a horror movie,” I thought. “Who does this? I’m weird.” My dog licked my face and grunted. She didn’t care that I was scared, but I was glad she was there anyway.
I woke up the following morning to shrieks. I sat up. “An animal is getting eaten right now!” was my first thought. When I looked out the window, my breath caught. A formation of twenty massive black birds, the size of chairs, were standing in the leave littered front yard. I’d post a picture of it but I couldn’t get the sliding doors open in time and my Blackberry got the flash of the glass door instead, just as the birds moved off. I tried googling “big black birds..Hamptons” afterwards, but I’m a bad googler, and later I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing. I’m guessing they were a “murder” (apropos?) of crows, but I preferred they be ravens, as my first book is littered with raven imagery. I wanted to believe this was a positive omen – supporting my writing.
The next three days proved to be heavenly. My dog and I went to the beach, and as she ran around like a psycho, eating random dried up wood and sand, I came up with the structure for my book. I wrote for four hours that afternoon, and then took a good book with me to a restaurant so I could read in peace at the bar. Silly me. Some twice divorced real estate guy in his fifties with OCD (he told me so) chewed my ear off instead of his steak, and an old man (a regular) ate my French Fries.  When I asked them why there was a painting of a crow (or a raven) on the wall next to me, whether that bird was common in the Hamptons, they looked at me like I was the crazy one. But they couldn’t convince me that it wasn’t another sign, of some kind.
So I meant to talk about this last Sunday, but I was busy living my life I guess. For Thanksgiving, I went to my sister’s house and as she was putting the turkey in the oven, I showed my father the shitty picture of the birds on the lawn, and asked him what he thought they were.
“They’re wild turkeys,” he said, matter of factly.
“No… are you sure they’re not ravens?” I asked, hopeful.
“Definitely turkeys,” he said, and patted me on the head.
Leave it to my practical father to burst my convenient little fantasy, I thought. But as I sat around the table with my parents, my sisters and their children shoveling turkey into their mouths, I was filled with gratitude. 
Just like I felt when twenty turkeys woke me on that beautiful fall morning with the promise of good things to come.

Thanksgiving: Where receiving can be as important as giving.

The abundance of Thanksgiving posts out there pre-Thursday turned off my writing switch. All the pertinent topics had been covered, ranging from the obvious gratitude articles to the difficult travel day posts. I posted a link to one I particularly liked called, “Can you be thankful for what you don’t have?” to my Facebook page because it inverted the way we normally think on Thanksgiving. On a regular day, when we see another person’s misfortune, it’s easy to tell ourselves, “I should be grateful. Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me, or someone I love.”  But does that really work? Perhaps such thinking is superficial. It rushes out of our heads as quickly as it rushes in. It sometimes makes us push aside legitimate grievances, out of guilt, and allows us to avoid dealing with our reoccurring issues. But only for a moment.
In the weeks preceding this holiday, I’ve been a mopey brat, and I haven’t liked it one bit. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself, despite all the tangible good things I could check off on a list. It bothered me. Because in the years since my divorce – where I was close to rock bottom – I’ve taken warm pride in discovering the joys of gratitude. Gratitude has come in the smallest and most random forms: a surprise phone call from a relative, connecting with a stranger, a perfectly formed sentence, the fact that my parents answer the phone because they can, and the ability to be present for a friend in need. But in the past few weeks, none of these things were working. Why?
Oh, break-up blues is an easy one, right? But how long is that card good for? My ex-cub and I broke up over two months ago. So what if I’m going to be “alone” for the holidays, when last year he and I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. So what if going home to NJ, where everyone is married with children underscores my “differentness.” So what if (per my last post) the dating scene looks bleak and I’m not getting any younger.  So what if I’m not feeling impassioned by my day job or my writing on the side job. At least I have a job where I work with people I adore. At least I wrote a novel. What more could I ask for?
All of the above is 100% true, yes. But does this kind of talking to yourself really work? Does it automatically lift your spirits, like a “snap the F out of it” switch was flipped?
For some people, it totally works, like for my father, and some men I know. When my sisters and I were little girls and we’d cry over a boy or missing our camp friends, my father used to say to us (and he still does), “Who died?”
That used to frustrate the hell out of me. “Why does someone have to die, Dad, for me to be sad? Don’t I have a right to be sad when things aren’t going my way?”
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke up to the sun shining (ok- well at least it wasn’t raining) and my dog licking my face. My older sister and her family were in the city for a Bat Mitzvah (on Thanksgiving?) and were picking me up to drive to my parents.  I had something to look forward to. Two hours of traffic, yes, but in a car filled with my nieces and nephew fighting over my Blackberry (I didn’t even know there were games on it) and iPad (the smudgy fingerprints after wards are worth it), playing with apps that my ex-cub had had the foresight to download (“for the kids”). I felt my gloom start to lift, although there was still a nagging ache. Then a friend of mine, who went through a divorce when I did, messaged me that she was feeling down. Her sincere email, on any other day, would be something I would hungrily indulge, where I’d give advice and talk about how I feel the same way. What are we doing with our lives? What is going to happen? We are in our late thirties and still processing these damn divorces? But after I got her email, it hit me. “No. No,” I replied. “Sorry, but I’m not going to feel sorry for you.” Or myself, I thought. “We have so much to be thankful for.” (I had to wrestle my Blackberry out of my niece’s hands to write this, but still). “You have to let the good stuff in,” I wrote. “But first you need to see it, in order to receive it. So get that dark shit out of the way and make room!” (Huh. Good stuff, Cougel, I thought to myself, before hitting ‘send.’) My girlfriend, rather than taking offense, thanked me. The light bulb went on, for both of us, and I was grateful for her message – a necessary mirror to my own unfounded self pity – and grateful to have her in my life.
My mother made a beautiful meal and decorated the table with brown leaves (it’s the thought that counts). She was pleased to see me eat seconds. And pleased to see that I’d put on some weight, “You don’t look sick anymore,” she said.  After dinner, we watched “The Godfather,” although watching my father laugh and gesticulate while reciting the lines is better than the movie. And then, since we were sitting around with newspapers and laptops, I decided to reinstate my J-date account. Maybe there’s something to be said for a dating site that attracts people from the same culture, whom can actually pay for the service. What a revelation!  I even let my mother sit next to me so we could look through all the profiles together. I expected her to say, “What’s wrong with him?” every time I dismissed someone, but this time, to my surprise, she nodded and said, “You know best, mamaleh.”  I even let her chime in on what photos I should include (she nixed the one where I was holding a martini glass in my hand).
I thought back on the post I had read a few days prior, “Can we be thankful for what we don’t have?” and to my pleasant surprise, I didn’t need to conjure up all the bad things that thankfully hadn’t happened to me – or list the tangible “good things” –  in order to be thankful for what was right in front of me.