In Braiding Sweetgrass, our book club selection for this month, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks, “Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?”
Read that question. Ask it aloud.
Who is your we?
Kimmerer asks that in a chapter titled “Allegiance to Gratitude.” She has learned that one of her daughters has stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, for understandable reasons. Kimmerer tells of a much older communal script, the centuries-old Thanksgiving Address. The Native Americans who use it also call it The Words That Come Before All Else. At an elementary school on indigenous lands, children start and end the week reciting it. Sometimes community members gather to listen.
“This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority,” she explains. “The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.” After each expression of gratitude — to the land, the waters, the plants, the animals, the creator, and others — the people respond: “Now our minds are one.”
Practicing gratitude is good. Studies show its benefits, even in brain-changing ways, but often it’s a solo pursuit. I like Kimmerer’s question and its nudging toward a communal practice. It’s hopeful, daring, cognizant of the potential for (and, really, already the existence of) disagreement. It doesn’t specify who “we” is; that’s something each of us needs to figure out ourselves. We might be a couple, a family, neighbors, coworkers, fellow citizens, people at odds on a given social issue. She notes the address’s focus: “This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority. The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.”
So, a related question: How can we practice gratitude together?
1.Practice it alone, then spread the word
The first person who took me gently but firmly by the scruff and put me eye to eye with gratitude was my friend Peggy. I was going through a rough patch, personally and professionally, and during a phone conversation full of acute observation and good advice, she prescribed a gratitude journal. “Five things, every day,” she said. That night I opened a small blank journal I’d bought on sale and obliged. More than 11 years later, though there have been silent spells, I still log the day’s gifts in a little notebook.
2. Ask others to join you
Several nights a week, an email arrives, always the same subject line, one word and the date: “Gratitude, 1-23-19.” Usually Emily starts it, and that night, or the next morning, Michelle and I will reply. It’s a grateful community of three, two of whom have never met. We share our words into the candlelit chapel of our glowing screens, receiving each other’s with gladness and usually without comment.
It was my friend Emily’s idea. “I have clinical anxiety, including death anxiety; I’m terrified of dying, grieved by mortality,” she writes. “I don’t remember now why I connected death anxiety with a gratitude practice, but I do know that statistically, practicing gratitude helps with generalized anxiety, and I suspected it would help me. But starting new habits is hard. I thought it would be easier if I associated it with relationship, with friends. I didn’t know who would surface when I posted an invitation on Facebook, but sometimes the right people come along providentially, without hand-picking.”
Her friend Michelle was in. “I had a gratitude practice in the past — specifically writing down one moment of gratitude nightly one year and then a practice of, in moments of intense stress or anxiety, covering a sticky note in thoughts of gratitude,” she writes. “I would stick it somewhere where only I could see it. Most often this was on the back of my printer on my desk at work. The sight of it for me was calming.” Our three-way gratitude renewed her dormant practice. “In the same way I look for my friend at the gym at 5 a.m., I also look for you both to prompt me to focus in on gratitude regularly.”
After almost four months of this, Emily says, “I see two distinct ways it enriches my life. One is the email thread itself: There’s pleasure and nourishment in writing to the two of you, reading what you’ve written, watching two dear friends connect with each other. … Two, it provides actual therapeutic and spiritual relief. When I remember I’m supposed to be practicing gratitude—not just via the email thread, but also on paper and in my head—it can shut down the anxious part of my brain, the part that perseverates and meta-narrates everything. It’s amazing how well gratitude works as a track-switcher.”
3. Expect random gifts
I was shopping at ALDI recently, on a snowy day full of appointments. The grocery store chain keeps its prices low partly by charging brief rent for their grocery carts, which are kept chained together in a corral near the door. Insert a quarter, free a buggy. Return it when you’re done, get your quarter back. No employees spend hours roaming the parking lot, gathering carts and hauling them home.
I had unloaded my bags into my trunk and started to wheel my cart back the 20 yards or so toward the entrance when a woman got out of her car, heading for the door. “Do you need a cart?” I asked.
I steered it toward her, and would have foregone the quarter. But she opened her hand, coin at the ready. I extended mine and she dropped the shiny disc into my palm.
“Thank you,” I said.
4. Listen to the elders
If there is one thing I learned in spending much of the last 2 1/2 years with my 95-year-old great-aunt, who died earlier this month, it is gratitude. She often thanked me for what I did for her, and sometimes “for the things you do that I don’t even know about.” She said thank you to everyone who brought her coffee, served her food, emptied the trash in her hospital rooms, served her in any way. She endeared herself to people that way, but that was a result, not an intent. Her father raised her that way, she would often say.
Even in moments when she was anxious or angry, “Thank you” became a litany, a string of verbal worry beads. And they were her last words, to someone who salved her dry lips with Cherry Chapstick before she entered her final sleep.
5. Write a note
One of the many choices to be made in the arc of funeral planning is selecting a design for the thank-you notes that the parlor will provide. Among other things, it is a narrowing of options, which brings with it momentum: THIS design. I’ll take THIS box home and get started. And then there’s the work of head, hands and heart: making a list, thanking each person on it for specific things, getting an oxytocin boost of gratitude in the writing, feeling forward motion in the addressing and sealing and stamping.
But it doesn’t, shouldn’t, take a death to reach out like that. Get a box of thank-you notes, or get a packet of blanks and make your own. Give someone the delight of a handwritten thank you, and your act of noticing.
Maybe we can’t all agree to be thankful for all that is given. But there are probably infinite intersections where two or three, or sometimes more, can say, Yes. This. Thanks. Now our minds are one.
Photo by fauxto_digit, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Laura Lynn Brown, author of Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories.