Category Archives: Health and wellness

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.

End note: The “End in Mind” Project featured this blog post on February 4, 2021.

Why 'older' can be a strength during the Coronavirus crisis

The first inkling that society sees me as vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic — as older or weaker, as potentially infirm — came with a reminder from Union Park District Council that any board or committee member over age 60 could skip in-person meetings without penalty. (For the record, all meetings now are digital, and yes, my younger colleagues taught me Zoom.)

The next hint was the notice from grocery stores such as Lunds & Byerlys and Whole Foods that I am eligible to shop with others past 60 during the first hour of business, after the stores have been freshly cleaned and before hard-to-stock items have run out.

Because I recently — and sanctimoniously — urged one of my sisters to start writing a daily gratitude list as an antidote to anxiety about the falling stock market and the drip-drip erosion of freedoms in our daily lives, I have reflected on how being 62 helps me weather the uncertainty of a COVID-19 world, where every day the headlines scream a new disaster.COVID-19_blog

We Baby Boomers were trained to use the telephone.

Talking on the telephone is a learned skill, one that my generation was taught to value (unlike the Millennial who told me he would consider it an “intrusion” if someone called him to check in). It’s convenient, of course, that my iPhone allows me to check two email accounts, post to social media, pay my bills, watch silly videos and listen to podcasts. But it is my phone’s use as just that — a phone — that is tethering me to friends and family as I shelter in place.

This past Saturday, I had an impromptu call with my sister in Denver, who lives alone since her husband died a year ago. My friend Sara and I turned a coffee-shop date into an hour-long telephone call. My childhood friend Janey and I each will fix breakfast this week and then “eat together” while we talk on the phone. Not ideal or what we originally planned, but good enough.

I’m OK with time at home; in fact, I crave it.

Even before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a “peacetime emergency” and limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, I was spending the majority of my nonworking evenings at home during the frigid months of January and February: reading, trying new recipes, watching Netflix, following the Democratic debates. My see-and-be-seen partying days (and nights) are long behind me, so staying home more — though a drag during my current staycation, when I wanted to see films and art exhibits, take day trips and explore the city — is not that big a sacrifice or change.

I am practiced at daily exercise.

My yoga studio has shuttered. The athletics and recreation facility at the university where I work is locked up tight. That leaves yoga on my living room floor, with my younger dog, Gabby, licking my face during Savasana, or lifting weights in my basement while half-listening to the bleak news on CNN. Morning dog walks and 2-mile jogs keep me moving around outdoors.

Contrary to stereotypes about people my age, I never have to convince myself to move. Decades of experience have shown me that exercise always strengthens and sustains me. Lately, it also helps keep fear at bay.

Home officing may moderate my Boomer workaholism.

However productive I may be at home, I am simply not going to work as many hours now that nighttime meetings are via Zoom, hallway conversations with colleagues have been eliminated and the events I was to be co-leading for our students this spring — including Day at the Capitol and “Get Counted” Census 2020 workshops — have been cancelled.

A generational differences chart from 2008, though dated, shows how working less may enlarge my life. Described as “competitive” and “ambitious,” Boomers have “traditionally found their worth in their work ethic.” That is me, the mother who willingly ceded at-home parenting to her husband, the “tireless” employee whom one manager called her “gold standard,” the breadwinner who took her responsibilities so seriously that work always came first.

These days I am connecting more with friends, urging my sons to stop by for homecooked food, reviving my sagging spiritual life and learning that a less calendared existence yields a calmer, less chaotic perspective. Motion does not equal meaning. Community and collaboration more than personal achievement will get me — get us, together — through this crisis.

Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”