November is the worst month. This makes the placement of American Thanksgiving a strategic one: you get to give thanks for yesterday when today isn’t worth noticing, bask in past glories when sunlight pales and chills, look for the silver lining when the day is sure to be cloudy. Eat pumpkin pie when the last strawberry has rotted away.
Two years ago, I was trapped in a particularly vile specimen of this evil month. I expressed my hatred in the following poem.
Halfway around the sun from May,
resides the cheerless twin of April.
The twins, though they look much the same,
differ like entrance does from exit.
This is the month when brisk turns bleak,
when days are mostly made of night,
semesters drag from week to weak
shuffle of drained though rain-drenched feet.
This is the month when we give thanks,
counting our blessings down to one,
the way one lauds the buried corpse —
the world’s last color fading, gone.
Our merry-go-round has spun twice around the sun since I wrote this, and now I’m in a very different place. “Thanks” no longer rhymes with “corpse.” Gratitude has stopped being something you invent when you run out of joy. It stopped being a preservative for artificially prolonging the once-natural sweetness of past joys.
Gratitude isn’t high-fructose corn syrup. Gratitude is strawberries.
Gratitude is something you live.
I started keeping a gratitude journal this May. I must have gotten the idea from some self-help listicle, blog, vlog or other uncertain source. On a whim, I decided to try it out, setting aside a few minutes at the end of each day to write down a handful of grateful words.
(Whims: those mischievous leaps of faith towards the selves we aren’t when they whisper in a language we have yet to understand.)
I don’t exactly believe in positive thinking — that is, I don’t believe in self-deception. So I set myself a rule: only write down things you actually feel grateful for in the moment.
The rest of this post documents my findings — in the form of curated excerpts from my journal, with a smattering of commentary.
Today I’m grateful
for the family of tulips beside the bike path
for the calm in this room now, drowsying towards bedtime, lone warm lamp
for all the ideas swirling in my head; for thinking on the bus and while walking
for the varieties of white daffodils
for B sleeping on my shoulder
for the moon sliced in half against a heavy pink cloud
for the glow of dawn on my shelf and curtains
for the slow warmth of breakfast conversation
for the strange joy of reading in moving vehicles
for the sudden bright evening sunlight. for the light in my eyes, for the inexpressible neon colors over my closed eyelids
for the warm light filtering through the tree just now (bright green leaves), just as I thought sunlight was over for the day
for the sudden bunny right in my front yard today
for the dogwood full of light and suddenly full of smell and moonlight
for the blue bouldering route, and even for the orange one with the pirouetting fall
for the joy of painting over an old painting, for thick clumsy paint
for the tears in my eyes now
It’s easy to get lost in your strivings toward long-term goals and forget about everyday joy. Writing a gratitude journal has helped me refocus on what is right in front of me and notice the reliable sources of joy in my life.
I always knew I loved nature, but I didn’t realize the full extent of my love until this year. In May and June, my journal was basically a litany of flowers, with a mention for every new bloom in the neighborhood. Trees, grass, birdsong, silence — these things show up in my journal again and again. I already knew that I wouldn’t want to live in a big city. Now I hope that I will eventually grow a garden of my own.
Today I’m grateful
for the emptiness of coffee shops after termtime
for the staggeringly green grass
for the bunny on the way to the bus stop, and the smile at it shared with a passerby
for sunlight sifting through the leaves, for shade feeling like being underwater
for the poodles licking my toes
for fear mingling with joy, and contributing to it
for the trees out the window on the way there, and the joy of the day in the air
for that view over the river with the cityscape and trees, so full of promise
for the shadows over the bike path
for leaves in the rain, and for the smell of fall in the air
for the water on the river turning from a glowing haze to icy smoothness
for soft doziness in the car
for the sudden intense sunset
for the okayness of evening light
It’s easy to get lost in your strivings toward long-term goals and forget about everyday joy — but it’s also easy to get lost in flowers and sunlight and forget about your long-term goals. A gratitude journal gives you important information about some of the things which mater to you. But it’s not the final word. An accomplishment I’ve worked towards for a long time might only register in a single sentence in my journal, while bunnies and tulips might get whole paragraphs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t worth giving up days of tulip-spotting to write a single article. We live in time, and it matters to us that our lives add up to more than just a series of moments.
Difficult to discern from close up, some value requires a temporal narrative.
Today I’m grateful
for the spaciousness of the time I spent working
for the 45 minutes of reading, engrossed and without noticing time passing
for the textured hyperrealism of Dutch still life
for the sunlight in my eyes there and the glowing treetop
for having more things to think about than I have time for
for broccoli with soy sauce, and for really paying attention to the flavor
for ever new flowers along the bike path
for the joy of blogging
for walking in the rain, for its gentle sound on my umbrella, and for the sharp-angled leaves, yellow and green
for the rainbow in the clouds just as I indulged in lying down on the grass
for just how glistening the leaves were on the trees, and for the unseasonably warm weather
for the moppy-dog encounter
The perspective of the daily gratitude journal is too close to register some valuable things: the ones that sprawl out in time. But it’s also too distant to register others. The things I’m grateful for in the evening aren’t necessarily the ones I was grateful for as I experienced them. I write about nature and sunlight so often partly because I like describing these things. Sometimes what I’m grateful for is not so much the thing as its name.
Still, my pleasure in describing nature is usually proportional to my pleasure in nature itself. In other domains, language measures less reliably. The days I spend thinking fail to register in my gratitudometer — an hour of glorious thought gets a bland “engrossed and without noticing time passing.” Moments of intense focus take me to a different place, in which there is no space for in-the-moment gratitude, and precious little to put in a description that evening. I can only say, without describing: I am grateful for this focus.
Today I’m grateful
for confusing the sunlight on one of the trees with pieces of sky
for the picture of C and A, all smiles
for the swallows flitting across the path, and for biking downhill fast, and for the roar of wind in my ears
for the puddle of kittens getting into the house. for them climbing the laundry pole gracefully and getting down haplessly
for whole-family enthusiasm
for feeling enveloped by the sunlight in my long-sleeved shirt
for how beautiful the dinner ingredients looked when finely chopped
for smiling at each other in front of crosswalks
for B’s arm around my waist and for the cicadas which sound like ping-pong balls and for the bunny by the side of the bike path in the dark and for the rats scuttling along
for all the times I’ve managed to do things which felt impossible
I still don’t believe in positive thinking. “Look on the bright side” is cruel, insensitive advice to someone in acute pain. (I also suspect that “negative” emotions like grief can be forms of gratitude, gratitude for a deeply important past, and that where grief is appropriate, looking on the bright side can actually amount to ingratitude.) But I do believe in noticing good things when they are happening.
I am incredibly lucky. I have people to love, and writing, and trees, and bunnies. This grey November is filled to the brim with gifts. Yet at least one evening a week, when I open my journal, I am convinced that I will find nothing to put inside.
Then, I write these words
Today I’m grateful
and the impossible becomes easy. Every time. The gratitude is already there, waiting for me.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Happy Living.