Gratitude: No action is too little, or too late

I wake up early every morning, before 6 a.m. This time of year, in Minnesota, the place where I was born and raised and choose to stay, that means doing battle with the reality that it is dark and cold outside, that I am trapped indoors until the surprisingly late sunrise because it may be dangerous to run or dog walk when I can’t see the ice.

Call it 90 minutes of forced reflection, made more poignant as the holidays wind down.

To wake up the day after the final Christmas celebration and know that the warm glow has extinguished, that the heartfelt expressions of love and affection with siblings and friends and the thoughtful texts from coworkers will not converge again for another year, to feel the deadweight of all the sugar that has come into the house from well-meaning neighbors’ homemade treats (“old people cookies,” my sons call them) and then to see only blackness outside and feel the sting of cold air — and to recognize that this is life now, for another three months — well, the only way out of that sinking morass is gratitude.

In order to face the cold and darkness, I must examine my life. Count my blessings, as I was taught as a girl. Practice gratitude, in today’s parlance. Surrender to the season and the stillness and the solitude.

Speak it, name it, write it down

Gratitude gives life a richness that has nothing to do with wealth. That has everything to do with relationships and paying attention to the world around you and finding purpose beyond yourself. I first learned about the practice of keeping a gratitude journal when I was treated at Hazelden in 2010 for a drinking problem, that most obsessive and self-centered of addictions.

It was on a Zoom call this past Thanksgiving with other women in recovery that I became reacquainted with the power and simple pleasure of hearing people speak aloud what is good about their lives:

  • “I am grateful to have the quiet life I have.”
  • “I am grateful for my dog and cat.”
  • “I’m grateful that I’m no longer reliant on other people’s opinions of me to validate my self-worth.”
  • “I am grateful that I have hope now, even though it comes and goes.”
  • And mine, eight months into COVID lockdown: “I am grateful for the mistakes and the growth and the uncertainty.”

November was National Gratitude Month. That dovetails nicely with Thanksgiving, just as Dry January naturally follows from New Year’s Eve (complete with a #soberissexy hashtag on Instagram). But gratitude, like yoga, sobriety and other disciplines, is a practice, not a once-a-year social media or Hallmark card event. To offer thanks or count your blessings only on Thanksgiving would be the equivalent of declaring love to your special someone only on Valentine’s Day. It becomes an external obligation, rather than a habit that you integrate into your daily life.

Unsure how to seek gratitude when you are struggling with one of the most difficult years in modern history or when, like me, you are waking up to your unearned privilege? Start with the internet. There, you can:

Here’s a real-world example: After my boss died unexpectedly in July 2018, at an age younger than I am today, I endured months of uncertainty at work. The champion for my unconventional job was gone. My future in the organization felt precarious. I was afraid, and my instincts told me to bolt.

Instead, I made the wiser, more difficult choice of staying until the situation sorted out, which it did eventually. Meanwhile, I forged those roiling waters by building a bridge of gratitude.

Every morning as I walked to work, I counted off on the digits of one hand five things about the job for which I was grateful. From the large (I have purpose and opportunities to learn) and the lucky (I like the people I work with) to the seemingly insignificant (I no longer have to commute by car), I reminded myself daily why the job was worth fighting for.

After proposing an enhanced role some months after my boss’s death, I got a new manager, a better title and a generous raise. A more conventionally religious person might give the credit over to God. I say it was the habitual practice of gratitude that reshaped my attitude, helping me gain perspective and a patience I often lack.

“Gratitude is a magnet,” says spiritual director JoAnn Campbell-Rice on the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website. “By focusing on what I do have rather than on what I don’t have, gratitude draws the best of any given moment, person or situation.”

‘Gratitude turns what we have into enough’

What is good about my life today, in this moment, right now? That question is at the essence of a gratitude practice.

After nine months of knitting and Netflix, “Zooming” as a verb, too much home cooking and too little sleep, I am keenly aware of what my daily life lacks. The usual wintertime distractions of going to a museum or the movies, reading at a coffeehouse, lunching with friends, hosting neighbors for brunch — those outlets are closed amid COVID’s still rising deaths and case counts.

Still, I remain grateful. I am grateful for a home that allows me to shelter comfortably. I am grateful that no one in my family has caught Coronavirus. I am grateful for the strength and agility to get outside, to walk and run, even to shovel my own sidewalks. I am grateful, at 63, to have a job.

“Gratitude, just as philosophers and psychologists predict, points us toward moral behaviors, reciprocity, and pay-it-forward motivations.”

Christina Karns, Greater Good magazine

But gratitude — at a time of high unemployment, record numbers of homeless encampments in my city and more COVID-related deaths than any of us thought possible back in March — feels like the embodiment of white, middle-class privilege. What did I do to deserve any of this?

A friend and Unitarian minister recently flipped the question back at me: What’s the alternative to gratitude, some unspoken belief that you deserve your good fortune? “Gratitude is related to humility,” she explained. It’s less an exercise in entitlement than an awakening to the imbalance of opportunities — the systemic inequalities — in a country that feeds on excess. For a few.

Gratitude leads to action. It moves me toward simplicity, inspiring me to recognize when my own needs have been met, to stop when satisfaction morphs into greed, to know when enough is enough. And then to step outside myself, and be of service. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself,” said C.S. Lewis. “It’s thinking of yourself less.”

And that practice, if sustained and multiplied by millions, could literally change the world.

Is age a point of pride, or a fact to be denied?

I caught myself doing it again on a chilly evening in October, telling a group of young parents and first-time homeowners at a neighborhood block party that my husband and I are being careful to take Coronavirus precautions because we are “not young.”

During a Zoom call recently with students at the college where I work, I referenced “people my age” to distinguish myself from the students’ generation, but I didn’t say how old I really am. Similarly, in a conversation with my 30-something manager about whether in-person contact with college students is safe during COVID-19, I said, “You know, Josh, I’m not young anymore.”

Why can’t I state the obvious, to speak the very word (“old”) that I am trying to embrace? Here’s why:

  • Because my colleagues at work might see me as irrelevant.
  • My young neighbors might deem me a person not worth befriending, no longer fun, with my aversion to swearing and dated love of high-waist jeans.

Just as it’s OK in our culture to describe someone as “thin” but never “fat” — even though both adjectives layer a none-of-my-business judgment onto someone else’s body — it is a compliment to say someone looks young but never old. To deny that I am old, at 63, is to imply that age is a deficit, an embarrassment, rather than an achievement that grants us wisdom and perspective. By using euphemisms to sidestep the truth, I am colluding with the stereotype I seek to shatter.

“Lots of old people don’t get wise, but you don’t get wise unless you age.”

Educator, author and scholar Joan Erikson

I want to claim the word “old,” just as some young women have “reclaimed” a pejorative that I consider so sexist and vile I refuse to reference it as anything other than “the C word.” My hairdresser, who is five years my junior, dismissed my reasoning with a tinge of anger the last time I had a haircut. “You’re not old,” she snapped. “My mother is old. She’s 91 and in a nursing home.”

Except I am old. Not elderly, as in physically decrepit or unable to manage my daily life. But at 63, I am hardly in midlife any longer. I use wordplay to describe this shapeless period bridging authentic middle age — the 40s and 50s — and the point at which I will retire from my career. I say that I’m in “upper middle age” or in “my early 60s.” I say that I am ”older,” borrowing the tentative nomenclature in an article about a scientific study of walkers in their 60s, 70s and 80s; the reporter called them “older people in good health.” Older than what, or whom?

Maybe “young-old” is the most accurate (and palatable) as I navigate this mystical, mysterious final third of my life, the one with the end I know is coming but cannot see.

Age is relative

I walk by a well-tended Little Free Library on a warm autumn day, and the book that calls to me is one of those little handbooks of sayings, the kind you keep at a lake cabin or in the bathroom. It’s called “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese.”

I smile, of course, but do I believe the title’s true? Isn’t claiming that “age doesn’t matter” just another way of denigrating old age, of saying it is a reality and simple fact to be denied?

We dismiss age in our culture. We exchange disparaging birthday cards about growing older, like the one I saw recently of a drooping, half-naked granny wearing leather sex gear (how preposterous that an old woman would have a sex life). We women lie about our age, feeding a multi-billion-dollar “beauty” industry with face creams and makeup and hair dye and Botox injections — and taking it as the highest compliment when someone reassures us that we look good, “for your age.”

We deny that age will affect us. As an athletic person and daily exerciser, I have done so myself, until sore knees and slower bike rides and more need for sleep have told me otherwise.

During a get-out-the-vote phone bank before the election, I commented in the Zoom chat to my young colleagues that it would be interesting to discuss what conclusions we draw based on the prospective voter’s age, which we can see. “I usually look forward to talking with older women because I assume they’ll be kinder,” said one woman who’s maybe 30. “But I have talked to some feisty older ladies lately.”

I might have counted National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg as a “feisty older lady” until she poked fun at her age on “The Axe Files” podcast with political commentator David Axelrod. He noted that Totenberg, who’s 76, has been covering the U.S. Supreme Court longer than any current justice has been serving. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. And then came the predictable: “I’ve been covering the court since I was 6.”

Right, LOL.

My extended family had a Zoom call recently to meet my 82-year-old uncle’s second wife. They like to golf and someone asked what her handicap is. “That’s like asking a woman her age,” one of my cousins said to a round of laughter. I wondered whether I — the humorless feminist — was the only one who felt the sting of shame behind the joke, the hard and hurtful implication that women lose value as they age.

Name it and claim it

My younger son sits in the kitchen of our family home, thumbing through a novel he has stopped by to give me. He reads a quote by Buddhist author Pema Chodron at the beginning of the book: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

I expect him to ask me the question that Chodron posed. Instead he says: “Do you worry about death?” My son is 25, old enough to be framing some structure around his life but still young enough to see the vista of options spread out before him. He asks me if I fear death because he sees my lifespan as limited. In his eyes, through his experience, I am old.

I answer not reflectively as an older woman but instinctively as a mother, with a Mama Bear protectiveness that has been part of me since I gave birth. “No, I don’t worry about my death,” I tell my son. “I worry more about yours.” He looks surprised and oddly pleased, while I am momentarily caught in the memory of the color draining from my father’s face as we waited for my older brother’s funeral to begin barely three weeks after he had turned 33.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”

Writer Victoria Holt

I don’t fear death. I fear decline. I think of the woman a decade my senior who told me that she began to feel more physically vulnerable by age 70. I’m more afraid of falling than I used to be, less willing to risk a new activity like rollerblading or scooter riding for fear of being injured.

The righteousness, the declarations that age won’t slow you down, the rage against society’s youth-culture machine: Those all feel deliciously true, until you turn the corner and stare age squarely in the face. Until you recognize that time moves through a lifetime as it does through a vacation — starting slowly, stretching out in front of you as though it will last forever, then speeding up as the end draws near. And then you’re scared.

I’m never going to run an 8-minute mile again, and my waistline will never be what it was before my pregnancies. So how can I embrace who I am today? How can I love this wrinkled, wiser woman who nursed her mother to a dignified death, who raised two boys to be good men, who is trying to come to grips with the reality that her career is almost over and a decades-long sense of purpose will have to be replaced?

“During much of my life, I was anxious to be what someone else wanted me to be,” says poet Elizabeth Coatsworth in the Age Doesn’t Matter quotations collection. “Now I have given up that struggle. I am what I am.”

And what I am, vibrantly and gratefully, is old, with wisdom and a wealth of experiences that compensate for the swift and sometimes bittersweet passage of time.

Want to celebrate a friendship? Mail a card

I had a memorable birthday celebration on July 4, made no more special by the 10 people (only one of whom I know) who pressed three buttons to wish me a “Happy Birthday” on LinkedIn. Likewise, the 63 Facebook messages, many with the identical auto-filled and poorly punctuated “Happy Birthday Amy!”, were a nominally satisfying way to feel remembered by former coworkers and other folks I’m rarely in touch with anymore.

But that isn’t how my closest friends reached out to me. They sent birthday cards with personal, handwritten messages, the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. mail.

My friend Sarah stays in touch with cards.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads one, a quote from Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that women of my vintage sported on T-shirts and book bags when we were young. Another card, from a friend I have known since my mid-20s, pronounces us “friends for life” in a touching handwritten note. “If you have a garden & a library, you have everything you need,” reads a card from a friend who is as busy with work as I am and who suggests we continue our tradition of occasional Sunday morning teas and talks.

  • My birthday was special because each of my two grown sons gave me a book with a long, handwritten letter inside.
  • My birthday was special because my neighbor surprised us with a homemade cake and a socially distanced gathering in her backyard.
  • My birthday was special because my husband’s best friend swung by in his 1981 Corvette with a piece of lemon meringue pie (which I don’t like, but no matter) and sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs from the front sidewalk.

Friendship has become a commodity these days, a point of pride to be measured more in quantity than quality, with hundreds of people on social media calling themselves my “friends.” Except they’re not. They are well-meaning acquaintances — just as I am to them — who are good enough to “like” my family photos and raise a fist in camaraderie to my political posts. My friends are the women I called when my parents died. My friends are the people who help me stay sober. My friends are the ones I can pick up with, after weeks or months, and enjoy a long, freewheeling talk over breakfast or on a bike ride.

My friends send greeting cards, hand-selected to evoke laughter or a sense of well-being, because that process takes time and thought, just as a true friendship does.

This card from my brother accurately pokes fun at my multi-tasking nature.

A sidewalk sign outside a family-owned business in my neighborhood started me thinking about the thoughtfulness, artistry and relative permanence of greeting cards. “Anyone can send a Facebook post,” it read. “Be a friend. Buy a card.”

Avalon on Grand — one of those charming, well-curated gift shops that has nothing you need but a whole lot of everything you want — boasts “one of the largest selections of greeting cards” in the Twin Cities. It’s one of several stores where I shop for cards all year-round, choosing cards for friends and siblings (sometimes bursting out with laughter in the aisles), and then stashing them away for just the right occasion.

Cards can be standalone works of art.

The Greeting Card Association (who knew there was one?) traces the history of greeting cards back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians. Wikipedia is another good resource for the card curious.

Europeans began exchanging Valentine’s cards as early as 1415. Twenty-five years after the 1775 founding of what is now the U.S. Postal Service, Valentines were becoming an affordable way to express love and affection throughout the fledgling United States. The “first known Christmas card” was published in London in 1843.

Unfortunately, the latest entry in the GCA’s “History of Greeting Cards” is 1943, which doesn’t signal optimism for the practice of card-giving, especially in our digital age. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Millennials are giving new life to an industry that was faltering with the advent of social media and e-greetings.

“Millennials are . . . seeking a feeling of nostalgia in card-giving,” says a National Public Radio story from Valentine’s Day 2019, just as they’re embracing vintage clothing stores and mid-century modern furniture — the plastic, minimalist ugly basement of my childhood.

Americans overall buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and women are 80 percent of those card carriers.

“Due to technical difficulties, your cake will be postponed to next year.”

An Amish card holder hangs on a wall by the front door of our home. It’s a vertical piece of maroon cloth strapped around a small clothes hanger; interwoven pieces of green, blue and black fabric decorate the three pockets that are the perfect size for greeting cards.

I don’t remember where we bought it, or when — likely 15 or 20 years ago, when the boys were small, and my mom would watch them over my birthday so my husband and I could bike the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota. We’d stay in Harmony, near an Amish enclave, and probably found the handcrafted holder in a coffeehouse or antique shop.

The cards I have saved and selected to place in those three pockets are keepsakes:

  • Smart-ass ones from my oldest sister (“What’s the difference between you and a senior citizen?”).
  • Cards with handwritten notes from my husband and sons.
  • An artsy thank-you card from a friend and spiritual guide that includes a quote from the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (“Let there be no distance between the words you say and the life you live”), who raised his three children in Northfield only blocks from where my husband and I brought up our own sons.
  • An undated birthday card from my father with an affectionate note in his barely legible handwriting: “It’s getting hard to think of you as my little girl.”
Greetings from Helene and Connie

Most precious are the two cards I kept from my mother, one from 21 years ago when I was turning 42 and she was a robust 73. I had been sandbagged, apparently, by someone I loved and trusted, though the anger and shock have long since faded. Mom gave me a journal and a handwritten card: “I hope what you put in this little book will help your feelings to heal,” she wrote, with wisdom I surely failed to appreciate at the time. “Recapture the joys and delights you’ve had. Life goes by so fast. Be happy. Love, Mom.”

The other card I saved from her is dated July 4, 2012, four months after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The handwriting is shakier, the message simpler: “I’ll buy you lunch wherever you want to go.” Could she even still drive? But I can touch the card and see it, and I can feel my mother with me, in a way that an old social media post (“Your Memories on Facebook”) could never replicate.