Let’s Be Grateful for What We Cannot See

gratitude

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This blog space was birthed out of gratitude.

In 2011, I was in the midst of a reckoning with my anger, fear, and shame. I was drowning in a deep, deep sense of scarcity: my fear of never having enough and never being enough. Somewhere in the midst of that reckoning, that drowning, a friend handed out a bunch of free copies of a book about gratitude. In a world full of supposed life preservers, I decided to reach for it, in the hope it would keep me afloat.

It did.

For several months, I engaged in the daily practice of gratitude, writing down everything that I noticed around me and within me for which I was grateful. The dancing of sunlight through treetops on the dining room table. The sound of my kids’ laughter in the other room. The taste of a single raisin. The still-quiet place of peace at the center of my soul. By the end of 2011, I wasn’t just staying afloat.

I was beginning to glimpse the shoreline.

Suddenly, I knew goodness was abundant, both around me and within me. I resonated with the words of David Steindl-Rast, who wrote, “We can’t be grateful for everything, but we can be grateful in every moment.”

Even when we are in pain, goodness and abundance continue to exist. It’s possible to feel the sorrow while seeing the beauty. Such double-sight can sustain you in the hardest of times, and it can inspire you in the best of times.

By the beginning of 2012 I knew that, regardless of how badly people might react to my writing, goodness and beauty and abundance would still exist within me and around me. So, gratitude in me gave rise to courage in me gave rise to writing in me. And on January 6, 2012, I published my first blog post. I’ve been practicing gratitude ever since, but an email I recently received from a reader has inspired me to change my gratitude practice.

Now, instead of being grateful for what I can see, I focus on being grateful for what I cannot see, as well.

She told me she’d been reading my blog since the beginning and had never reached out before, but she was grateful for the words I’d shared over the years, and she wanted to let me know. I told her I was grateful for her. Though I’d never known she existed—and though I haven’t been able put a face or a name to the vast majority of my readers over the last seven years—I’ve been grateful for every single reader since that January day in 2012, including the ones I’ve never heard from.

Thank you.

If Seth Godin is right and art isn’t art until it has been shared, you’ve made it possible for me to make art. You’ve given my words a place to belong. At times, when I thought the sanity I was finally experiencing might just be crazy, your enduring presence has assured me that I’m not going nuts. You’ve made the cold, dark, frustrating mornings at the keyboard worth every moment of it. You’ve given publishers a reason to believe in me. You’ve given me, by virtue of your very existence and faithfulness, hope for humanity. Because of you, that hope will never go away.

Gratitude for that which we cannot see may be the most enduring gratitude of all.

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Why I’m Glad My Daughter Got Kicked in the Face with a Soccer Ball

kids resilience

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Several years ago, when my daughter was five, she played soccer and got kicked in the shin during a game. From the sidelines, judging by her behavior, it seemed like the leg would have to be amputated. We were able to save the leg (with a bag of ice), but she never really recovered emotionally.

She takes after her father in this way.

Eventually, she finished the season and decided she’d rather dabble in extracurriculars with lower odds of getting kicked with a cleat—dance and gymnastics and piano, for instance. However, this autumn, she decided to try soccer again.

The first practice, she looked like Frogger.

She ducked and dodged away from every other player on the field. When the ball came toward her, she turned away from it and hugged herself tightly. She never actually fell onto the grass in the fetal position, but it seemed like it could happen at any moment. She explained that the kids at this level were bigger and she was afraid of getting kicked in the face with the soccer ball. I told her the odds were long that it would ever happen.

Whoops.

By the time our third game rolled around, she’d become less afraid and more aggressive on the field, refusing to back down on defense and inserting herself into the scrum for a loose ball. Her fear appeared to be melting away for good.

Then it happened.

A giant, precociously pubescent fourth grader launched a ball directly into her little third grade face. I didn’t see it happen—I was busy trying to get four players on the sidelines to sit still and quit squirting water bottles at each other. But, when she arrived at the sideline, the evidence was there: a big, rosy welt covering most of her left check. She was in tears, head in hands.

But I’ll be honest, a part of me was glad it happened.

This was her biggest fear about soccer, and you can’t play your best soccer if you don’t know that you will be able to endure your biggest fear. The same is true of life. A good life isn’t one in which we avoid all of the loss and heartache and disappointment and loneliness and rejection and failure of being alive; a good life is one in which we become confident we can survive all that pain.

In life, most of our anxiety comes from fearing the soccer balls that will be kicked in our face, while most of our resilience comes from feeling them.

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School Is Back in but It Was Never Really Out (and This Is Why That Matters)

back to school parenting

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It’s nearing the end of summer vacation, and I’m out of ideas.

For my kids, ages eight and ten and fourteen, the early thrills of summertime have lost most of their thrill. Riding fast on a bike has turned into riding sweaty on a bike. Free time to read what they want has turned into free time to read Big Nate for the hundredth time. Sleeping in has turned into, well, sleeping in and then waking up to nag your siblings.

It’s all wearing a little thin for everyone.

So, on a Friday afternoon, I tell them we’re going to do an experiment, and if they choose to participate, there is ice cream in their near future. I tell them each to grab a piece of paper and a pencil. I grab a book, and out the door we go.

We drive to a local park, which sprawls out along a river floating by at the same languid pace that everything else seems to be moving during these dog days of summer. We choose our places on a bench, in the grass, and on a tree stump. The kids are itching with curiosity about what we are here to do.

When I tell them, they stop acting curious and start acting furious.

We are going to do a ten-minute breathing meditation, I am going to do a poetry reading, and then we are each going to write our own poem. Surprisingly, my oldest and youngest surrender quickly. The middle child resists but then gives in, angling more for ice cream than for peace. But, whatever. I’ll take it.

After ten minutes, I read the poem. It is from Mary Oliver’s Red Bird, and it is entitled, “Mornings at Blackwater.”

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What is this lump in my throat?

A few weeks ago, a friend laid an unfinished poem called “Holding the Baby” at my feet and asked me to finish it. In the finishing of it, I rediscovered a little bit of awe and wonder about this big, sacred mystery we’re all living in. I hope what we created brings you a little awe and wonder, too. Here it is…

meaning

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For weeks, our dog has pawed at the thawed out patchy yard. A mommy rabbit dug her birthing home under our fire pit. The bunnies couldn’t survive the tireless winter as it beat beyond the spring doorframe. We would bring Betsy in from the cold and make her drop one of the litter at our feet. Is it a mystery that she didn’t eat them? Is it foolish to believe that she was holding the babies as a mother of all creatures?

I hold babies too. All day long. Monday to Friday. 7:15 until the parents get off the commuter train and enter home life again. The infants speak with cries and drooling spittle. Their beginning words translate my heart into a life more understandable. They’re toothless and tongue-tied; they’re the hums and babbles of the generations going forward.

What is this lump in my throat?

Make me drop the poem at your foot.

Carry me. Listen to me.

This lump is time and cosmos.

This lump is the truth of the whole thing, gathered in my throat, leaving me speechless.

Holding the babies, they are me and I am them. My bones longer now, skin less supple, teeth come and gone and come again now yellowing, hair graying, held now in the arms of aging, still vulnerable, perhaps now more than ever.

Holding the babies, I hold myself, my once upon a time self, and my one day will be gone self. In the beginning, drooling spittle, our body so new we do not know we have lips; in the end, drooling spittle, our body so used we have lost control of our familiar lips.

Holding the babies, I hold innocence, hearts without wound. In their innocence, I recall my own innocence. I remember who I was purely, who I am vaguely, who I one day will be again hopefully. In their innocence, I bear witness to the good news, the promise of how beautiful it all really is, in the beginning, in the end.

This lump is time and cosmos.

This lump is the truth of the whole thing, gathered in my throat, leaving me speechless.

And the truth holds me gently, like a baby, dropping me eventually at the feet of Eternity, the wintertime of life giving way to the springtime of being.

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Listening for Invisible Blessings

Tuesday morning.

I awake with loud ringing in my right ear. I stick my finger in it. Wiggle it. Blow my nose. No such luck. The ringing grows louder. I turn to Google and search “sudden onset of tinnitus in one ear.” Google says tumors and blood clots and, hopefully, ear wax. I resolve to never search a symptom on Google ever again. The best recommendation: ambient sound, avoid silence at all costs.

I go to my hushed therapy office for a full day of work.

It’s torture.

blessings

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By the end of the day, I’m jumping out of my skin. I’m starting to get anxious. I will be traveling to Virginia on Saturday for a speaking engagement, and I can’t imagine doing so with this ringing. Of course, people live their whole lives with tinnitus, but silence has always been my best coping method—the idea of living with this forever almost undoes me. It is always a little terrifying when a lifelong coping strategy quits working.

I go to sleep, hoping for magic overnight.

Wednesday morning.

No magic. After a restless night, I rise to the ringing even louder in my ear. I call my chiropractor, and he takes good care of me, but afterward, the ringing continues unabated. I can sense something dark lurking at the edges of my hope. For the rest of the day, I do my best to ignore it.

Thursday morning.

I awake and the ringing is louder than ever. Remembering the ear wax thing, I call my doctor and set up an appointment for Friday afternoon. Then, I try to concentrate on producing my podcast. Around noon, with the mercury pushing seventy for the first time all year, I finally give up. I put air in the tires of my bike and go for my first outdoor ride in six months.

Nature has been stubborn here. Though it has been spring for more than a month, there is no green to be seen. I ride through brown, barren forests. With no foliage yet to obscure it, the death and decay on the forest floor is laid bare. Toppled trees. Lightning scorched stumps. Rotting leaves and branches. A month from now, on this very same ride, I will be unable to see any of it—it will all be obscured by the resurrection of springtime, the dense blessing of new growth. The death and decay will still be there, but it will be hidden within the beauty.

I ride through the barren forest and, suddenly, I realize I can’t hear the ringing.

The rush of air past my ears is is obscuring it.

The brokenness of my hearing, hidden within the beauty of the wind.

The dark thing at the edges of my hope retreats a little.

Usually, I insist on believing that blessing is found in the absence of brokenness. But I’m reminded once again, blessing is not the absence of brokenness; it is beauty amidst the brokenness. Beauty is the blessing that helps us bear the burden of our brokenness. Beauty is given to us, in seasons, so we may pay attention to it for a little while, rather than the brokenness, rather than the death and decay.

I get home and do the dishes. I realize the running of water obscures the ringing even better than the wind, and I live in a town with a river running through it, and in the middle of the town is a dam. I imagine spending the remainder of my years—my march toward death and decay—with a broken ringing in my ears, and I picture myself going down to the river daily, to let the sound of the dam replace the ringing in my head.

Beauty amidst the brokenness.

Brokenness lost in beauty.

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How to Feel True Thanksgiving in Just 45 Seconds

The pain stabbed me awake.

Near midnight, on an ordinary Sunday evening, I awoke to the feeling of someone inserting a very sharp knife under the toenail on my left big toe. The sensation lasted ten seconds, then subsided. Forty-five seconds later it happened again: ten seconds of exquisite agony. Then, forty-five seconds of ordinary living, followed once again by the knife. It went that way all night long.

Every forty-five sleepless seconds, the knife.

Thanksgiving gratitude

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The merciless cycle continued with almost no relief for three days and two more nights. I’m feeling better now—the right diagnosis and some good treatment and my sciatic nerve has finally cried mercy, for now—but the whole thing showed me something about how to cultivate true thanksgiving, as we head into this Thanksgiving holiday.

It has to do with the ordinary threaded throughout the pain.

What I mean is, during the daytime, when I was distracted by all the demands of daily life, I only paid attention to my toe when the knife arrived, so it felt like I was being stabbed all day long. But at night, there was nothing to do but pay attention the whole time, so I got to fully experience the forty-five second gaps between the pain, as well. And this is what I discovered:

I’m deeply, deeply grateful for forty-five ordinary seconds.

We tend to think of gratitude as something that happens when pain is vanquished, when hardship and disappointment and loss are eradicated from the landscape of our lives. We tend to think of gratitude as an experience that arises naturally when the risk and fear and diagnosis and disease and grief are behind us, rather than on us or in front of us. We tend to think of gratitude as an extraordinary feeling that corresponds with extraordinary blessings and exceedingly good fortunes and a cookie that crumbles in all the right ways.

But the truth is, gratitude can happen in forty-five terribly ordinary seconds.

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The Only Thing Better Than Being Remembered

The waves will wash us away.

I’m walking along the beach on the West coast of the United States when I see it, carved into the rock: “S+H 4 Ever.” There is a heart carved around it, and a date: 9/2014. At first, my heart is warmed—it must have been hard to carve, a labor of love. But then, very quickly, my heart is chilled. Three years ago, “forever” was carved deeply into a rock, and three short years later, the crashing water is already eroding and erasing the letters. In those fading letters, I saw myself. I saw all of us.

The waves of time will wash us all away.

purpose meaning

At some level, each of us is aware of this. So, we strive for immortality, by carving our initials into this life—we try to make our mark on the world. We try to make a difference. We long to be remembered. We hope to leave a legacy. We fight to outlast ourselves. But the truth is, aside from the occasional address in a field at Gettysburg, or a speech on the mall in Washington, most of us will not be remembered for very long.

Someone once said, “Every man dies two deaths. The first is when he takes his last breath. The second is the last time someone says his name.”

Our time here is short and, for most of us, the waves of time will eventually wash away even the memory of our existence, no matter how deeply we carve our initials into the bedrock of our lives.

Like I said, the heart-warming inscription only chilled me.

Two days later, though, I’m back in the heartland of America, and I’m sitting beside another body of water—a river—on a colorful, brittle autumn day. The season around me is yet another reminder of how everything and everyone is always dying and passing on. As I sit beside the river, the image of the waves slamming into the shore continues to haunt me. But then something happens.

As I watch the world around me, I see that it’s dancing.

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What to Do When the News Is All Bad

I’m standing in the dark, but I can hear the daylight.

In my neck of the woods, as autumn becomes more frail, cicadas mark the daytime—around midday, they awake and begin their daily song. Then, around sundown, they are supposed to recede, and the crickets preside over the darkness, humming until daybreak. And yet, sometimes, they overlap.

I’m standing in the dark, but I can hear the daylight.

If I listen closely, threaded throughout the din of crickets, I can hear the rebellious hum of cicadas refusing to go gently into the night. And here’s the thing: if you listen closely, a bunch of insects can teach you about how darkness and light really work:

Always, darkness and light overlap.

mindfulness

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There is, it seems, darkness everywhere right now. Charlottesville and hate, hurricanes and devastation. Earthquakes in Mexico, a massacre in Vegas, wildfires in California. The darkness of political and racial division everywhere, even on a gridiron. Data breaches and the dark web and the unfathomable darkness it harbors. Terror and trafficking and more terror.

If you read the headlines, it is easy to believe darkness reigns.

But the truth is, the news is called the news not because it is common, but because it is rare. If my kids came to me and told me they had big news and I asked what it was and they told me they’d just gone to the bathroom, I’d tell them that’s not news. News is the exception to the rule. So, when the news industry reports on the darkness, they are flooding you with outliers. That’s their job.

The truth is, there’s not enough server space in all the world to contain the very, very common light in all the world. The good news is so common, there’s not enough channels on television to contain it all. In fact, the good news is so ordinary, it’s not news at all. It’s just life. And it’s happening right here, right now, all the time, in the midst of the very sensational darkness.

Always, darkness and light overlap.

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Why We’re Lonelier Than Ever (and What to Do About It)

In Chicago, at the peak of the eclipse, you could still see about 13% of the sun. That is, I think, about how much remains of our communal life, as well. This is what I mean by that, this is the damage it is doing to us, and this is what we can do about it…

lonely

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As the eclipse began to wane, I looked to my side and saw one other person on the hillside next to me. She too was lowering her gaze and removing her eclipse glasses. Our eyes met. We smiled at the same time. No words. Just a smile. I can’t be sure what her smile meant, but I know what my smile was saying:

In this space and time, we were enjoying the same experience.

We were two people paying attention to this one thing.

We shared this.

As I walked off the hillside, I wondered why her small smile had moved me more than the vast crescent smile of the sun shining around the moon. I think it was a feeling of connectedness—a sense of unity that transcends familiarity; a sense of belonging that can happen even amongst strangers who are sharing experiences in community.

But our communal life is going extinct.

And it is making us lonelier than ever.

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The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional

back-to-school

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The summer is fading—and the sun is rising—as I drive my son to his summer job.

At thirteen-years-old, Aidan has spent his summer riding a bus into the cornfields, along with other teenagers, walking row after row of corn, and pulling the tassel from each stalk, so the rows can pollinate each other. As we cross a river, he looks to the west, where the night is slowly giving way to day. He says it’s beautiful how you can see the layers of night disappearing in the sky. We talk about how, even farther west, there are people still sleeping in the dark, unaware of the passage of time.

This image haunts me.

It haunts me long after Aidan boards the bus, long after the sun climbs into the sky. Because that’s how most of us live—myself included—asleep in the dark, unaware of the passage of time. Or running to and fro under a midday sun that hangs so high and steady in the sky you can almost convince yourself it isn’t moving. Hurry is its own kind of sleepwalking. The noisy bustle obscures the ticking of the clock.

The passage of time is only unmasked in the boundary lands.

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