From Guilt to Gratitude

mary fusoniMary Fusoni

I was brought up to be grateful, but not in a good way.

Nearly a half-century ago, as a senior at Boston College and in my sixteenth year of Catholic education, it gradually came over me that most of what I had been taught about religion made no sense to me anymore. All those lessons memorized from the Baltimore Catechism, repeated with increasing detail from first grade through high school, even into the mandatory college theology classes—all, it now seemed, were absurd.

A primary thrust of many a lesson was that I owed everything to God. My child’s mind saw it this way: To God the Father I owed my very life, my family, the food I ate, the green grass, and every material thing. To Jesus, I owed the possibility of heaven; if I followed all the rules (which I did), I would be there with Him for eternity. It was all about gratitude: Had Jesus not suffered and sacrificed his human life, all of humanity would be punished for the sin that our ungrateful parents, Adam and Eve, had committed at the dawn of time. I believed, as a child, that I did not really deserve to live or to have anything at all that I had. Everything on earth, everything I had, including the air I breathed, existed only because of the grace and the goodness of the infinite, eternal, all-knowing God.

At 21, when my view of this theology took a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, I jettisoned gratitude along with the Holy Trinity. If the point of gratitude was to praise God, and there was no God in my life, expressions of gratitude were irrelevant. So I let it go for twenty years. Such gratitude was all about guilt, and the last thing I needed, as I abandoned the faith of my father and mother and sisters and brother, was more guilt.

It took a long time subsequently to realize that active gratitude can be decoupled from God. I don’t mean to say that I spent years in a state of ingratitude. In fact, as I matured I was increasingly thankful for many things: for all that my parents had given me, for friends and family, meaningful work, shelter and food and so much more. But it was an underground gratitude, rarely expressed beyond routine thank-yous where appropriate.

Coming to real, chosen, and guilt-free gratitude has been a long process, one in which First Parish has played a major role. I owe First Parish—I am grateful to the people who are and have been the community of First Parish—for bringing this way of gratitude to the surface for me, for showing me the joy of choosing gratitude as a way of life. Given that I have abundant blessings and so very much to be grateful for, it has been one more blessing over the years to be subtly and overtly encouraged to take account of those blessings, and to be given words and constructs with which to express gratitude for what is good in this amazing world, broken and suffering though it may be.

I am so much more content in this place where gratitude is expansive, it can spill out all over—to you who are reading this as part of my community; to the people near and far working for justice; to the adorable kid next door just for being so cute; to the clouds in the sky and the compost in the bin. Today I find that I am even a tiny bit grateful to the Baltimore Catechism and all of those religious indoctrination lessons, for without them I could not have written this essay. Gratitude without god—small “g” for me now—is akin to joy, and I am grateful to have found my way to it.

Years ago, as an early tap-in to this expansive gratitude, I pinned Anne Sexton’s poem “Welcome Morning” on the kitchen bulletin board. I leave you with these few lines:

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

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Cultivating Gratitude

peggy gardinerPeggy Gardiner

Today we took the tomato cages and stakes in.  Last night the frost came and though we had covered the tomatoes, it was too cold for the tomato plants.  We picked the last of the large green tomatoes and composted the small ones.  The kale and beets like the cold, so we will continue to harvest them.  It is autumn and the cold shorter days are here.

We have had a good year in the garden.  We harvested lots of good tomatoes and greens.  A rabbit came, was a challenge, and then was gone.  Flowers and herbs flourished and the cleome seeds from Monet’s garden flourished.  Angela taught me about permaculture, a way of harnessing rainwater.  A whole new adventure!

I had my challenges.  A weed came north from the Mid-Atlantic States and will not stop growing and multiplying.  It is more than I bargained for as I try to make caring for the gardens easier.

I am grateful for all that my garden provides.  There are always some wonderful veggies.  There are challenges that keep me thinking and learning.  Someone comes along to offer a good idea or provides just what I need. I have been blessed with the most wonderful family and good health.

I am in the autumn of my life.  Like my garden, there have been challenges, but the yield has always been worth the effort.   I have learned from the stones, boulders and things that get in the way.  I look back and appreciate what I have accomplished, but am excited about new things I can try.  Everything takes more time, I do not have the energy I used to have, and making things simpler seems to be satisfying.

I am letting go of things that I have cherished or that have been given to me to care for.   I have fabric for quilts and clothes I will not make.  I will find a home for a loom that has many memories. I will get rid of things that my parents thought I should have.  I am lightening my load, making life gentler, finding more time to appreciate those around me.  It is a delicate dance, letting go yet moving forward.   Yet, I am grateful for all that there is.

Soon, the winter will come and will bring new challenges and blessings. Yes, I am grateful for this season of the year.

Snow Geese by Mary Oliver

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
sometimes
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

Points of Contradiction

tracy waltonTracy Walton

Parker Palmer’s words in The Courage to Teach have gotten me through many a hard time, but I am especially grateful for his words about paradox. (I suppose the theme of paradox or contradiction could be great for another month!)

During a long vigil for my dying mother and waiting for my yet-to-be born daughter, I thought the pull in disparate directions might pull me apart. I returned again and again to Palmer’s chapter, “The Hidden Wholeness.”  While his descriptions of paradox in the classroom definitely served me professionally, I have been most grateful for how it spoke to such sharp paradoxes in the rest of my life.

Palmer ends that chapter with a quotation from Florida Scott-Maxwell, saying, “Some uncomprehended law holds us at a point of contradiction where we have no choice, where we do not like that which we love, where good and bad are inseparable partners impossible to tell apart, and where we—heart-broken and ecstatic—can only resolve the conflict by blindly taking it into our hearts. This used to be called being in the hands of God. Has anyone any better words to describe it?”

Returning Turtles

jo guthrieJo Guthrie

For many years I’ve loved Sea Turtles. When I was young they were a constant source of awe and amazement. They show up on the beaches in the hours of magic right before we wake up, leave their eggs on our beaches and despite our most curious tourists and well-intended onlookers, manage to survive the gestation period and hatch, bringing more turtles back to the oceans a few short months later.

My grandmother slept 6 hours a night ever night of her life. Rarely more unless she was sick. And so she was up and walking the dog in the early hours of almost daylight amongst the mists and quiet wakings of the birds. She had a loop, out our driveway, down the path the to the beach, up a mile or so back across the dunes to the golf course, and walked home along the golf paths. The magic was in the mornings when she would come back, crack open my bedroom door and in a quiet whisper would say “Turtles” which, even in my deepest slumber I heard. Ok, so it helped that she then cracked the door enough to let the dog in whose collar clicked together and gave me warning as to the leap he would make at my bed to awaken me.

But it was all of 2 minutes from asleep to in my bathing suit and upright and off we would go, the three of us, back to the beach to traipse up or down it to find the newly laid eggs at the beginning of summer, or the hundreds of small turtles working their ways to the water in August.

Each time was a marvel, each time we took seriously every attempt of those naive tourists to dig up the whole nest and take one of the eggs home or by a gull to catch a hatchling heading to sea. Of course there were other predators at sea which we could not keep them from but I waded in the waves, offering what protections I could in the cool morning waters, wishing hard for a safe journey to each one, looking directly at each one I could and sending it along as if by thinking a thought at each one I could wrap it in a safe spell.

And we’d return home, me soaking wet with sandy feet, our dog full of sand, and my grandmother as elegant as always laughing and full of tales of turtles and how we had outwitted some trite adversary as we protected OUR turtles from harm and sent them on their way to their new life of adventures.

Some nests didn’t make it, of course. We would see the crab holes nearby and know that they had been plundered. But even those had some survivors. And there were a few that had trouble getting out of the nest which died. But that’s just how it went. And each new nest hatching meant a new set of new turtles to swim among the waters with the dolphins.

sea turtuleYesterday I got a one of the sparkliest post cards I’ve ever received. Amongst the blue green sparkles is a picture of a Sea Turtle. And I sat in a pool of joy and tears as I read the back’s simple greetings from Hawaii from one of my favorite and most loved newer humans. And I thought of my grandmother. And how much love there was in the world and how incredibly graced I am to be able to still see it after all these years. And what a fortuitous coincidence.

Dinnertime Gratitude

chris julianiChris Juliani

Whenever the 4 of us are at the table together for a meal, we go around and say something we are thankful for.  I don’t think any of us have ever just said one thing.  It usually ends up being 5-10 things.  It has been really fun to watch our twin girls who are 4 years old share things they are thankful for.  Recently, we have had to allow them to add one silly thing at the end which is often a word like “chickachicka” that they make up in that moment.  Typical things I share are “I am grateful for my family – my Addie, my Vivi, my wife Kristen… that we are all healthy…. for our food (and something about where it comes from)… for our house… our car… all that we have… & our love.”  The things our daughters are grateful for have gradually become more similar to ours – not sure if this is totally their experience or copying us a little bit, but either way it is okay.  In my opinion, it is possibly the most important routine and hopefully life-long practice they are developing.

It makes me wonder how my family of origin and my life as a result would have been different if we had this practice in our lives when I was growing up.  I’m am very, very grateful to have this gratitude practice in my life now.  If you don’t already, you should definitely give it a try – it can seriously change your life for the better!

“It is impossible to feel grateful & depressed in the same moment.” – Naomi Williams

“Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery.  It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors.” – Richelle E. Goodrich

“You simply will not be the same person 2 months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And, you will set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.” – Sarah Ban Breathnack

Remembering Gratitude

kiki giatisKiki Giatis

If I need to look for something inspirational, Rev. Meg Barnhouse often delivers just what I need.  She writes about the humor and commonplace in our lives but also has a way to touch my spirit.  I don’t have chickens or a yard but all the other things in this short piece ring true. I just need to keep practicing.

“My spirit deepens into abundance when I practice gratitude. For the food I eat, for the beauty around me, for conversations and encouragement, for the things on my body that still work well, for hot water that comes right out of the tap in the wall, for family and love, for a car that runs, for chickens in the yard, for the congregation I serve, for the feel of wind and water. For the bravery I see every day, for kindness and unexpected good, I am grateful. When I remember to be.”

~ Meg Barnhouse from a reflection online at Quest for Meaning.

An Attitude of Gratitude

melanie cohn-hopwoodMelanie Cohn-Hopwood

There is loads of research that speaks to the benefits of gratitude. Working in the mental health field, I see its benefits manifest in the lives of my clients who choose to adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” Yet, when life gets hard, when your body aches and grief overwhelms your heart; when you are vulnerable and broken and then your fragile trust is broken, gratitude can be quite hard to come by.

Having something to reflect on can help. Whether a reading a poem or phrase, reciting a prayer, or a personal habit such as journaling, finding a way to bring gratitude into your life can greatly improve your quality of life.

When I feel off-balance I find it can be difficult to get centered again. I use quotations and poetry to help me re-focus my mind and allow gratitude to return. The following are poems from a book titled, “Prayers for Comfort in Difficult Times” by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard. These may or may not speak to you. If not, I hope that you are able to find something else that does.

Learning to See

Grant me the vision
to see leaves on naked
branches, to hear birdsong
in the stillness of winter,
to sense water flowing
beneath its skin of ice.

Prayer for Growth

Divine Creator, when I cried out
to You because I couldn’t change
my way of thinking,
You answered,
the power lies deep
within you, and I felt
the mountains inside
give way.

Giving Thanks For Your Lessons

Help me to remember
that because of You,
I am not naked before
blows, but clothed
with gifts that grow
over time. Thank You for teaching me
patience, for the flexibility
of the willow, for courage
to scale the mountain
within myself. Thank You
for the vision to hold moments
of delight as if they were
carved of jade. Thank You
for the beauty of lichen
blooming on an aged tree,
for teaching me that grief
and joy are married
like sap and earth.

Family Practice

brian dooleyBrian Dooley

I am married to the funniest, most caring and considerate person I have ever known. And together, we have a dachshund named Pinot. When my wife and I walked once Pinot up Mass Ave., someone stopped their car in the road to tell us how much they loved our “wiener dog”. For the recent Arlington Day celebration, my wife dressed up in a hamburger costume to match the “wiener dog in a bun” costume. They won first place for best costume. Her willingness to be seriously silly, made my cheeks go up into the air.

I have a brother who told me:  I don’t think of you. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about your feelings. Those words hurt, but they are teaching me that the expression of these thoughtless, uncaring words says more about him than me. And I “get” to learn that what I think of me means more than the unfeeling things that someone else (even a brother) says to me. I have another brother who bought me dinner because I was told by a prospective employer that a job offer would be forthcoming. That dinner felt like caring, and being cared about felt good.

My wife and I have a peach tree on our front lawn. In July, a Chinese man who spoke very little English walked by our yard, where I was tending my garden and enjoying the site of bountiful ripe fruit hanging on our peach tree. I picked 5 peaches and gave them to the man. Giving peaches to that stranger really felt good.

My mother is 95 years old.  When I asked her what she wants me to know, she told me “I love you.” Imagine how that felt…

You there… reading this….  Because you are part of my community, you too are a blessing to me.

Thank you for everything.

Unexpected Delight

mark seibringMark Seibring

One of the pleasures of working in Harvard Square is the ability to stop into a shop at lunch to browse books or to pick up an interesting gift for a loved one. Over the years, I’ve discovered some favorite places and have developed a few pleasant, first-name relationships with some of the shopkeepers. Several years ago, I discovered Topaz, a jewelry shop tucked behind Cambridge Savings Bank on Dunster Street. One day, while browsing I noticed a beautiful drop necklace that I thought my wife, Angel, would love. I asked the young woman in the store what color the stone was on the necklace. You see, I am red-green color-blind, so I sometimes struggle when selecting clothing and jewelry. She assured me it was dark red. Perfect. Red is Angel’s favorite color. I bought the necklace and tucked it away, waiting for an occasion to give it to her.

That is something I’ve always done—buy gifts and tuck them away until the right time to give them—a birthday, a holiday, or some “just because” day. I bought children’s books for my kids when they were young, and I would bring them out, one at a time, on a night when it seemed like a new book was in order. I bought surprises for Angel—favorite music, interesting books, jewelry, and such—and I’d give them to her as the occasion warranted. I don’t remember when I chose to give Angel the necklace, but it suited her perfectly, and she loved wearing it. One night we were out together, she was wearing the necklace, and she casually mentioned that she had a hard time finding a pair of earrings that she thought went with the necklace. So the next week I found myself back in Topaz, asking the pleasant, young woman to help me match earrings to the necklace.

And so it began, my semi-regular visits to Topaz, to pick up beautiful baubles with which to delight Angel, a lovely lunchtime ritual that I found myself looking forward to. And so, too, began my relationship with Stasia, the pleasant, young woman in the store. Whenever I came in, she remembered what I had already bought for Angel, and of course, was able to help me keep track of the colors. Over time, Stasia helped me select birthday and anniversary gifts, Christmas presents, gifts for my daughter, my sister, my sister-in-law, my office Yankee swap.

Stasia noticed that I was drawn to one artist’s—Sara Harding’s—work. Sara has a gift for unexpected beauty: necklaces with tiny stones interspersed irregularly around the chain or bracelets with a beautiful bangle and stone placed at the clasp. Angel and I both love her delicate and whimsical creations. Every few weeks I’d stop into Topaz to see what else Sara had created. Inevitably, I’d take home another piece and tuck it away for an appropriate occasion. Angel’s collection of Sara Harding jewelry gradually grew.

Four summers ago Angel noticed a knot in her breast. The discovery threw us into a sudden series of biopsies and surgeries and seemingly countless doctors’ appointments. In a particularly dark moment, Angel confided to me that one of the few things that brought her joy was her jewelry. Sara’s beautifully delicate creations reminded Angel that she was more than just her medically compromised body, she was herself. When she wore it, she felt beautiful, human, alive.

Of course, the next day I was back in Topaz looking for something—anything—that could possibly bring Angel joy during this dark time. As Stasia pulled out Sara’s latest pieces, I told her why I was there. Her face fell when I told her that Angel had breast cancer. That day Stasia helped me select a couple pieces, one for her birthday and another for our 28th wedding anniversary.

Angel started a six-week course of radiation therapy, and she told me that each day before she went in for treatment she selected a pair of earrings or a bracelet she would wear into the machine. I stopped back in to Topaz to pick another pair of earrings for her. When Stasia rang up my purchase, she pulled a bag from behind the counter and said, “This is a gift from Sara and me for your anniversary. Take it home and open it up together.”

When I got home that evening, Angel spotted the familiar bag as I came in the door. “What do you have?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

We sat together at our kitchen counter and read the card:

Dear Mark and beautiful wife/life partner,

I’ve heard from Stasia the countless positive encounters she has had with you, and my heart warmed each time I learned another piece of mine had been taken home by you & loved. Those feelings, however, couldn’t quite compare to the way I felt in my core when I learned of your current challenge. Stasia and I knew we had to give more of ourselves to symbolize our sincerity and desire to let you know that we, perfect strangers, are with you in this fight & with our intentions, thoughts & prayers are looking forward to your day of victory & remission!

This necklace, bigger & bolder than my usual style, is an attempt to paint a picture of you: sometimes dark, but mostly light. Always balanced but forever believing that life always works out for the best, ending each day on a light & positive belief in what we’ve just contributed & accomplished. 28 stones for 28 years (and counting) of friendship & unconditional love.

With gratitude & joy for our connection.

Sara Harding

The necklace was stunning, a gift generously given by Stasia, who knows an aspect of Angel’s and my relationship that no one else does, and by Sara, a woman we have never met, but whose art has played such a lovely role in our relationship, whose art has allowed Angel to feel her humanity amidst a series of dehumanizing medical procedures and treatments. The necklace brought a moment of unexpected delight and overwhelming gratitude into a dark and difficult time, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Grateful, Still

Lorraine CooleyLorraine Cooley

In the moment I’m likely to express how glad I feel about something.  But when I take the time to sit, ponder, examine, I’m more likely to directly express gratitude:  “I feel grateful still [several days later] for K’s loving, witnessing, completely accepting presence last Saturday.  And indeed I was more present the next day – very welcoming to people at coffee hour…”  Feeling glad and feeling grateful are similar, but subtly different, I think:  It’s wonderful to feel pleased or delighted – and when we also express how grateful we are, we are recognizing and acknowledging that we have been given a gift – unearned – which takes us to another level, where we want to pass it on, give back.  A good attitude for me to practice until it becomes automatic.  I’m so grateful for second (third, fourth…) chances!

lake in autumn