Featured Story

Jenifer’s Shelter Island Journal: Granular gratitude

I reminded myself a few days ago that I have to get a column in by this Thursday in time for next week’s early Thanksgiving edition. I’d already written about the wild turkeys — our Island’s sacred cows — a month or two ago.

I could write about the price of all the “fixins” for this year’s feast, but that’s too depressing. But then I was suddenly struck by a carving-edged inspiration: maybe I could write about  “gratitude” this Thanksgiving, of all things. 

I quickly realized that I don’t give much thought to gratitude. I value it of course, in a general way, as I do all those good-for-me “vegetable” traits like kindness and patience and honesty, but I kind of take it for granted. What am I grateful for? 

My stock answer is always the same: The health and well-being of my family, the relative comfort of my life, and the freedoms and opportunities to pursue my “happiness,” which includes the frequent chance to do work I value and enjoy.

The fact that my response is somewhat knee-jerk doesn’t mean it’s not also heartfelt, just a little bit boilerplate.

Even though, in the last several decades, I have become much more aware of the lovely “serendipities” that can occur throughout the day, such as a chance meeting with an old friend I was just thinking about; finding my long-lost glasses; or having a sudden inspiration for a column. But perhaps I haven’t been aware enough.

I wondered how I could make my gratitude more conscious, more granular. How could I encourage my mind and heart to really count the good little things that happen, and get into the gratitude weeds and spend at least a couple of days noting the tiny glimmers of grace that otherwise might escape my full attention.

I mean, have I been depriving myself of feeling the sheer luxury of deep appreciation for the tiny gifts in my life as well as the tremendous ones?  (Hint: yes.)

If you go online you’ll find a myriad of sites extolling the mental, physical, emotional and neuro-scientific benefits of gratitude and the most effective ways to achieve them.

According to the Harvard Medical School website, high on the list of tools in the gratitude toolbox is, along with meditation and/or prayer, writing thank-you notes: “You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank you letter or email expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life.

Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.”

I take that suggestion as a karmic swipe at the recalcitrant kid I used to be, the one who resisted writing thank-you notes, period. I’m relieved to report, however, that the most oft-mentioned tool for gratitude cultivation is the “gratitude list.”  I’ve made many in my time, off and on. On at least two occasions I made a gratitude list every day for a week! 

Given the topic of this column, I thought it would probably behoove me to start another G-list. It was at that point I was hit with a teeny-tiny inspiration out of the vast reaches of my mental left field. Instead of making a list once a day, why not record whatever “it” is right after it happens. Pain in the neck really, but that mini-notion was the first thing I wrote down on Monday’s list.

It means I have to be prepared to stop and scribble at a moment’s notice. It’s led me to write down things like “seeing branches of the copper beech through kitchen skylight;” “having fun during cats’ a.m. playtime;” “thank goodness ‘randomly’ happened to look in basement and saw leak,” et cetera. And that’s just between 7 and 7:30 a.m., Monday. 

I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up. It takes discipline and commitment, but so far, it’s been worth it. I don’t know if feeling grateful provides the seeds for joy, or the soil for it, or what, but I can only say that I’ve been feeling inordinately joyful for the past few days.

It’s put me in mind of the character, Emily, and her soliloquy at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: “…it goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another … wait! One more look … Goodbye, Goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it … every, every minute?”