(I unearthed a fully-formed issue of Woe while hunting around for stuff that should probably end up in the book I'm writing. I wrote this in late September 2021. Here you go.)
This week let’s go deep into the realm of instagram affirmations and explore the practice of gratitude journaling. Why do we hate it so, but also, why should we do it anyway?
Gratitude journaling is easy to hate because when we close our eyes and think of it we see a lilac-covered journal with little flowers on it, and it says Gratitude Journal on the front in a flowery typeface, and then inside we use our journaling pen sets to write down, say, 3 things each day we are grateful. There are also inspirational quotes, inside curlicued boxes, from Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou or Oprah. Probably some Rumi.
We hate gratitude journaling because it seems like Basic Bitch stuff, and we’re not basic bitches. (I might be using the royal we here, but let’s just go with it). We’re dark complex people with dark complex meaningful tattoos and traumatic backstories and too many black clothes and we wear a necklace depicting Lilith, a she-demon. We have bad handwriting and we’re angry and depressed. We don’t want people telling us how lucky we are! We know it, we know we’re lucky, but counting our blessings seems so much like Saying Grace, so unpleasantly close to denying our trials, to photoshopping away the reality of our pain until we can no longer confront it ourselves, our smiling instagrammed selfies a flat and affectless surface that wipes our actual experience of the world away, erases it.
Yes, instagram, religiosity, bland Gwyneth Paltrow spirituality capitalism, and the implacable forces of toxic positivity seem like they have ruined the practice of gratitude.
Gratitude is nevertheless a crucial tool in the battle against succumbing to darkness; each thing we find to be grateful for is a sandbag piled up against the levees, to hold back the floodwaters.
The depressed mind fixates on what has already gone wrong and what is wrong now. The anxious mind fixates on what could go wrong in the future. It is not the faults of the people who are depressed and anxious that their minds work this way, and if you want to get evolutionary about it (always a risk! but here we go!), then I will point out that the tribe needs negativity, because it needs realism. But the individuals who provide this needed service to the world, the bleak and yet demonstrably more realist assessment of the situation, we are always at risk of being swept away by the flood.
To practice gratitude is one way (there are many, stay tuned and subscribe) to turn our minds away from their instinctive and habitual gloom, so as not to be overcome. It is not magic; it is not a cure. It does not have to be trite, or basic, or bland. You do not have to write down that you are grateful for your children if today you are not feeling grateful at all about that. You do not have to write in script or dot your i’s with little hearts or say #blessed or say that any of it has to do with any kind of God or spiritual stance at all. You do not have to buy a pretty journal. You do not have to blur away the pain. You simply take a few moments every day and consciously bring to mind something good.
A moment of joy. The recognition of a positive circumstance in your life. Someone or something you love. The weather. Small things, big things, things no one else would be grateful for, things everyone would be grateful for, silly things, grave thing — anything at all that you can summon to mind that is positive in your life.
I woke today with tears already in my eyes, I can feel them now, they hover in the corners of my eyes for days and weeks and months sometime, and they burn there, and I’m sitting here in my closet writing with my burning tears worrying about a pain in my right hand, a sniffle in my nose, some foot injury I haven’t yet found the spoons to call the doctor about, worrying about my kid in 9th grade and the one in college. My first appointment of the day was with my psychopharmacologist, at 8am, to whom I said I am already doing all the things, there’s nothing new left to try, I don’t know how I am supposed to grow old like this, every year swallowing more sadness, and no way out. I also said I’d moderated a panel at a large online conference of engineering leaders, and he said well that sounds like a wonderful professional accomplishment. Yes, I said, I guess it was. Are you making your art, he asked? Yes, I even did a commission for someone recently. Maybe, then, you can try to find some more fun things to do? he said. Well, maybe, I said.
That is one view, not blurred, not retouched, of my life in this moment. But here is another, and it is no less unvarnished, no more retouched than that one:
My doctor was wearing a green bowtie with tiny black flamingos embroidered on it. I have been seeing him for a decade now and he is always wearing bowties. He may well own as many bowties as I own pairs of shoes, this old-school psychiatrist with the couch in his office covered in files and back issues of Psychoanalysis Quarterly. It brings me just the tiniest bit of pleasure to imagine the joy he must get from his bowtie collection, how excited he must be when he buys a new bowtie, the moment every morning when he chooses which one to wear, the moment this morning, sometime before 8am when we met, that he tied on a green bowtie with black flamingos on it, for no reason at all but for his own pleasure.
I’m grateful for that, and writing it down has made me smile.
All right then, I’ve got one out of the way, let’s find some more. The clear cool September weather today. That my child left for school on time. The twinkle lights in my closet, and the fact that they are not the kind of lights where the whole strand goes out if one bulb does, because I am looking at a dead bulb dead in front of me, at the beginning of the whole chained set, next to the dorm fridge, but the rest of the lights are still glowing. I’m grateful for that.
A sticky note on the inside of the closet door that says, in all-caps, REPLACEMENT TEETH, which was a joke Max made to me back in early 2020, before the pandemic, when all my teeth felt like they had been replaced. I like Max’s sticky note jokes.
Mary Oliver poems, even though I don’t want them in a lilac-covered gratitude journal. I’m looking at one right now, also on the inside of the closet door, “The Journey”.
Mary Oliver is in fact an appropriate muse for gratitude journaling, she was an expert at the art of gratitude, of finding small things in each moment to marvel at, just go read “Morning Poem” and tell me you don’t for one moment think ‘oh yeah, well there’s that, there’s the actual SUN’.
I like the moonrise and I like the bells of the Catholic church down the street when they play amazing grace at 7pm. I like my cashmere scarves. I like Kombucha. I like sheep’s milk cheese. I like silk scrunchies and goldenrod and the way mint spreads underground, and how it tastes when you put it in a little watermelon salad with some feta and olive oil and a little bit of salt and pepper. I like John Mulaney’s bit in which he is imitating Sir Patrick Stewart introducing Salt N Pepa on Saturday Night Live. I like the memory of watching John Mulaney’s TV specials with my older child, how we laughed over his bit about the cost of college, about his English degree.
I like tall socks. I like moonstone. I like the tall socks and the moonstone ring I am wearing right now. I like aviator glasses. I like the glasses chain that is attached to the aviator glasses I am wearing right now, I like how I feel like a librarian from the 80s with my aviator reading glasses, showing 9 year old me how to use the microfiche machine to read old newspapers. I like the way light reflects off the metallic silver booties on the shelf next to my head, here in the closet.
I like lavender-scented body lotion. I like lavender cut up and put on top of salad or pizza. I like the memory of some pizza we ate in Rome once, near the Vatican, that had fresh violets on it.
This is hard work, remembering the things in my life that I like. I write each of them down as they come to me, I try to remember what I love, I think yes these are Good Things, and I don’t have to like Martha Stewart or ever decorate a cupcake or stop wearing black or making moody self-portraits to appreciate the fact that every evening at sunset I get a free light show from my roof, to enjoy watching my cat clean his face with his paw, to be grateful for bladder campion, bouncing bet, jewelweed, and purslane, for bunnies nibbling on purslane in my parking lot, for a giant feather I found in Mt. Auburn Cemetery that I just now remembered is still in the door pocket on the passenger side of the car.
Grateful doesn’t mean sentimental, and it doesn’t mean only the big things, either. In fact it is often harder to be grateful for a big thing; the big things are too abstract: life, health, employment, money, love. Practice gratitude on small, specific things, which you can always find a few of, wherever and however you are. A red mite bright against the aluminum flashing on the roof. A ceramic coffee cup with a woodpecker on it. That enormous pileated woodpecker I saw the other day in the in-laws backyard. Comfortable thong underwear. Chocolate covered peanut butter pretzels.
I practice gratitude not because I should be grateful for everything you do have, young lady, although I suppose that’s true. I practice it because it gives me some brief relief from the bleak and it does so without pretty lies, which would not work.
To be grateful for the scrambled eggs Max brought to me in bed this morning, dotted with paprika, served with a slice of challah, is not to deny my real pain, my burning tears, my anxiety, or all my troubles real and imagined. It’s only to say that there are real things in my life besides toil and trouble, that I can find them when I look, that they deserve my recognition, and that they are each of them a blessing, whether or not I wish to call myself #blessed.