Praise the small! Shout out your mama! Everyone is talking about the healing practice of gratitude. From gurus to grandmas, the world seems to be catching on to the power of giving thanks to help create the life we want (and yes, it is so widespread that there are even smartphone apps for your gratitude recording convenience.)
Alright, I’m done sounding like a sales pitch. The truth is, that’s how I often feel when methodologies are suddenly appearing everywhere. But despite the sinister skepticism I am known to carry, gratitude has proved to be a way of life I can get behind- as my friend Lynne Dasilva-Johnson said recently, a real “positive energy generator.” (Don’t you love that phrase?) I first learned about this practice from my friend Jen Mazer, “The Queen of Manifestation,” who coaches women to manifest their dreams and desires. Before she launched her business, however, she was generous with giving friends tips about how to live more positively. Encouraged to write daily lists of what I was thankful for, and in desperate need of a shift in perspective, I dove into the challenge. Every day for a month I’d write eighteen things I was thankful for.
(Instagram can function a bit like gratitude lists, too- in the act of noticing and pulling out beauty. Throughout this article look for sprinklings of small joys and other stories I have happened upon!)
Have you ever tried this? Eighteen is a large number, especially if life is in a lull period and not necessarily serving up big occasions to praise. The practice forced me to get very specific, elevating the tiniest details to Godly worth. I’d praise the way the blue light fell through the curtains at 6am. I’d praise the jokes of the bodega owner as I desperately poured my morning coffee. Give thanks for quinoa! For ripe mango. Gratitude handed out like roses- to the child on the train who sang me a song from school, to her parents who allowed her. To the fly elder woman I couldn’t stop drinking with my eyes. Gratitude to my hair today (hello, fine self!), to the rain for feeding the earth, for the lesson in the difficult interaction at work. Gratitude to the skin of my love, to the Stevie Wonder song piped through the aisles at the pharmacy. Gratitude for the genuine smile on a toothless man- his grin seeming to stretch like taffy ear to ear.
And you know what? Something pretty amazing did happen. I started to swell with happiness as I recognized my many blessings- things around me became more beautiful- damn, life is beautiful.
I later took this practice into my classroom. My second semester seniors (who had a serious case of senioritis) in our social justice art seminar were tasked with writing their own daily lists as a beginning of class ritual. What at first started out as a slow trickle of acceptable- though general- thanks (“I’m thankful for my family”) soon turned into an all out gratitude fest- with each student vying for a chance to share their list, and offering up the most creative and clever of thanks. Sometimes we’d spend half the class just sharing out- and it was a truly useful tool in shifting the energy of the day from math class blues into a space of joy ripe for getting down on some art. And the art that year began to explode.
But beyond it being a perspective shift and a way to call more goodness towards you, practicing gratitude can also help unveil your next poem. One of my go-to workshops for teaching is titled Illuminating the Mundane- encapsulating what I believe every good poem does. As poets- and artists in general- part of our job is to elevate the ordinary experiences of life to a magical realm, to suss out meaning in our daily routines, interactions and landscapes.
Staying the place of the keen observer can become a challenge when we are dealing with day to day life, and often we lose our spark in the drudgery of routine. Short of jumping ship on our lives to take up a series of crazy adventures, we can engage in a simple practice that brings the feeling back to our dragging limbs. Keeping a daily gratitude list forces one to be aware, and notice the small textures of life again, without forcing or chasing the illusive poem. It takes the pressure off ourselves to create a wonderful piece of writing every day, but tunes us into many possibilities to expand on an observation. Think of it as field research with extra benefits.
Even writing this today, I noticed a poem beginning to happen. The 2 train (stalling often) was chugging along to deep Flatbush, Brooklyn- or so I thought- until it began to announce it was running on the 3 line after Franklin Ave. To non-New Yorkers I realize this a bunch of garble to read, but imagine this: I was now running late to a radio appearance and anxious about it. A man gets on our train car, now nearly emptied, and discovers that we are all headed to the wrong destination. All of a sudden, the man sitting across from me with a shopping cart full of bags and tattered clothes pipes up. The three of us figure out our route together, me typing on my iPhone, the man scratching a lotto ticket on his knee, and our friend with the shopping cart. All of our difference melted away as we swapped routes and stories.
As we transferred to the 5 train, we sat in separate cars (I needed the last car for my directions) and when the man exited at his stop he sprinted down to my car to let me know I only had two stops to go. We waved furiously with big smiles as he walked away and the train pulled off. And that, my friends, is a moment to be grateful for… And possibly a pretty good poem.
So here is my call to you- start opening your eyes to the small joys of daily life- and write on!
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Transcribing the Journey is a series of journal entries where I reflect on the journey of writing- my trials, tribulations, growth and thought processes- to share in communion with you, dear writer! Follow along here, or on my website, and feel free to share out!