Almost ten years ago I began writing Gratitudes
instead of New Year's Resolutions. I find New Year's Resolutions to be incredibly toxic, since most people habitually set up unreasonable expectations and goals for themselves, which they can never meet, then beat themselves up when they don't live up to them. It can all seem rather masochistic. There are a few things in life which I am most definitely not: sentimental; nostalgic; masochistic. What I definitely value is honesty, and clarity, and accuracy.
I was asked by some friends, some of whom have now taken up the practice of Gratitudes themselves, to write down how it works. So here's a little "how to" essay I wrote to answer that request: Writing Gratitudes.
Now here we are near the end of another calendar year. Northern hemisphere Winter is creeping up to slap us down again. There's snow on the ground, I've just spent Thanksgiving Day alone at home, mostly resting after overdoing it for the past few weeks, and so I watched a bit of a movie marathon (I do not give a tinker's damn about televised sports events). I am sitting in a mostly darkened home, candles burning here and there, a fire in the fireplace, sipping another mug of good hot tea. I'm enjoying the near silence of a cold winter late night. The fireplace makes a dance of light and soft sounds.
I'm genuinely happy for all my friends who had big joyous wonderful family dinner reunion feasts for Thanksgiving Day. Bless all of you, and best wishes to you.
And my own head is in a different place, this year. I spent Thanksgiving Day alone today. That was mostly by my own choice. No one (well, almost no one) invited me to celebrate with them today, to join their family or family-of-friends feasts. I chose not to reach out and ask to join anyone for the day, as if you have to ask you can never be certain that an invitation is sincere or made out of guilt. I am not unhappy about that, nor do I feel lonely or whatever. I realized a few days ago that I've been burning the candle at both ends for awhile, and I've been feeling overstimulated, and wasn't sure that I had the strength to spend the day with a wonderfully loud group of fantastically convivial friends—in other words, to be even more overstimulated. We introverts need our silence and solitary times with which to recharge. I would have liked to spend the day with a small group of two or three friends, that would have been fun, but it didn't work out that way, and I don't mind. And most of the people I would have chosen to spend the day with are all at least an hour's drive away from me, if not clear across the country. No regrets.
I began the practice of Gratitudes several years ago, and it has been a good practice. And I'm really struggling with it right now. I'm not feeling very grateful, or thankful. And I'm not going to pretend to be what I'm not, just to please others. I know I keep talking about how almost dying a couple of times really has changed my perspective on many things in life, and that's really true: life is just too short to waste time and energy on things that don't matter. One of those things that doesn't matter anymore is editing myself to please you: you can count on me for continuous honesty from here on out. Not that I've ever been known for anything but blunt honesty. It's true that I value honesty and openness more than almost anything else, now more than ever. And I am actually very good at diplomacy and tact; I just prefer to use them when it's appropriate, rather than by default.
I know I have many things to be grateful for, and I am genuinely grateful for them. A small circle of best friends, who are equally honest with me. A larger circle of friends who are not as close to me, perhaps, as my inner circle, and who I nevertheless am very glad are in my life. I have a roof over my head for now, enough food to eat, and enough money to pay most of my bills. I'm not afraid of the same things that many others are, because life has taught me that I can survive those, because in many cases I already have.
And yet I am still struggling with Gratitudes this year.
Because, to be honest, I feel really dumped. The past ten years have been a continuous saga of feeling like I've been ratfuck pissass bullshit orogenically dumped on by the Powers That Be. I've been homeless in the desert, I've lost both parents, I've lost more than one close friend, I've been through some medical hell including almost dying twice, I am now apparently permanently disabled, and I remain under the threat of losing everything I own and spending all of my remaining savings on paying off medical bills. It just keeps going on and going on, and even though there have been amazing wonderful awesome great positive moments in all of this shitstorm, it's really wearing me down.
The fact is, I'm tired. It's been an uphill struggle for a very long time now, and I still am nowhere near the end of it. I've been hard on the "positive thinkers" lately, even when I agree with their basic message, which I often do, because what I need now isn't cheerful platitudes but genuine support. I still need help with getting through all of this, but it seems I still have to get through all of it on my own. Which is an exhausting thought when I've been working hard to overcome it for so long, battling uphill into a headwind, when I've been dealing with surviving a chronic illness that stole all of my endurance, strength, and stamina, and that may never all come back. I'm doing better, but I'm not well yet, I'm not healed yet, and I'm still exhausted easily. It just gets overwhelming. Everything still takes me much longer to get accomplished than anyone imagines. It can take me four days to have enough energy to get finished tasks that those have never been sick think nothing of getting done in a single afternoon. I still have to rest more than exert, most days. I do have good days, when I have almost the same energy available to me as is daily available to someone of my age who has never been chronically ill. I can even have two or three of those kinds of days in a row now—but then I have to rest almost as many days afterwards.
And yet I can't really talk to most people about it any more. They don't want to hear it, they can't deal with it, and they don't know what to do about it. I don't blame them for that. Well, actually, sometimes I do, a little, although I tend to squash that impulse and not tell anyone about it—expect that I promised to be honest herein. It's all too easy to feel like no one really gives a shit. After awhile you stop asking for help.
And after enough of this endless cycle of feeling held back every time you make even a little bit of forward progress, your sense of being grateful can get lost in the overall static. There's a lot of noise covering the signal. (If you think I'm so unaware of my own self that i don't know that the source of most of the noise is internal, you're wrong.)
i get really pissed off, sometimes, at the shallowness of some people, who seem to think that platitudes alone will cheer me up enough, or that somehow all it takes to fix everything and overcome all your problems is an act of sufficient willpower. Two problems with that: one, if all it ever took was an act of will, no one would ever get stuck, but we all do, so clearly willpower alone is not sufficient; and two, what makes you think that sufficient strength of will can be generated by someone who was sick for twenty-five with an illness whose main effect was chronic exhaustion and a depressed immune system? What's offensive is how clueless people can be about that very thing. Well, I don't take it personally anymore, and neither do I feel any need to tolerate it patiently. Recently, I've run into numerous examples of people who seem to think that, because I'm no longer being dragged further down the drain by an ongoing illness, I am suddenly "all better now" and available to take care of their needs as well as my own. Seriously. Is it that they don't understand, or don't want to? The fact of the matter is, I have a strong, very well-trained, very determined will—and it still wasn't enough.
I am not rehearsing grievances by going over this once again. I am not a victim, amateur or professional. All I am doing is laying how difficult things remain for me. There are still many challenges. It could all still fall apart again. And so I find it hard, in all of this, to find Gratitudes.
So here I am.
On a holiday of giving thanks, when everyone is supposed to gather in family groups and have a feast of gratitude and convivial argument over cultural affairs, I find myself confronted with not wanting to do any of that. I actually chose, by default, and by not being asked to join anyone else's celebrations, to spend this holiday alone. In part to rest, because I needed to, and in part because when I am this tired I find big groups even more exhausting than usual. So call it self-defense.
And there's more. I'm finding it hard to be grateful, when what I see all around me as thanks-giving seems somehow phony. I mean no offense to anyone who might read this. it's just that, once again because almost dying changed my perspectives, I have become allergic to expectations about what we are "supposed" to do on holidays, especially when the rituals and expectations actively distract us from the original, deep meaning and purpose of the holiday. We have accrued all this baggage around the holiday, and I feel that many of us have lost our way towards genuine gratitude.
It's supposed to profound. It's supposed to come from deep within the self and soul. It's originally meant to be simple, and plain, and honest.
It's easy to be grateful when you're at a feast. Yet if you can find something to be grateful for when there's a famine instead of a feast, that's when it really counts, and counts for something more. I am scrounging for things to be thankful for, right now, because I know that if I can come up with even one or two, they do count. It's hard work, and I don't feel like I'm doing a very good job.
I don't want to set aside just one designated day to be grateful, and have that be an excuse to forget about it the rest of the year.
I am struggling with Gratitude in general right now. It's not that I have nothing to be thankful for, it's that it can be overwhelmed by not having time to reflect.
I've been living from crisis to crisis (some of them literally life-threatening) for far too long, and it has worn me down. I wanted to take this holiday of giving thanks to reflect, mostly on my own rather than in a big room full of terrific yet loud people. I want to recapture recall what it is that I am genuinely grateful for. This holiday is a chance to rediscover the real purpose of Gratitudes, and not be easy, superficial, or "supposed to" about any of it.
Infinite gratitudes for the small group of friends and family who never left my side during this long descent into near-death and the long return, and who never pushed me away, or took themselves away, because they could not deal with it anymore. I know I'm not the only one who got burned out by these past ten years of actual continuous crises. Some of my friends still have no real idea. I am grateful that some of them will never have to know any more than the little I've told them.
Infinite gratitudes for the tears that cleanse, for the release and healing of weeping, when I can't go on any more, i can't cope even one more day, and I just can't see any end to any of this. I have been scrapped raw of most of the armor one acquires during a lifetime of learning to cope with a sometimes-hostile world and not become too wounded or jaded. My emotions are if anything more free-flowing and available than ever before. So I do sometimes let myself weep over a stupid feel-good movie, even one with a predictable cathartic plotline I saw coming by the second act, just because the release is good.
Infinite gratitudes even for the shitty days. This is bottom-basement lowest-level gratitude, it's nothing remotely worth being proud of oneself for. Because it looks like this: even on my worst days now, I am still grateful to be alive rather than dead. Even when it sucks to be alive, I'm grateful for it. (Why don't more people get this one? It's so incredibly clear. Well, maybe you have to come close to death to learn how to really value your life.) I did almost die. I have a powerful and unignorable awareness of my own personal mortality now. I have an incredible amount of things I still want to do in this lifetime, and I know better than anyone that our time here is limited. So even on the days I wake up feeling shitty, and sick, and weak, and not at all like I can cope with even one more thing, I still somehow manage to be grateful that I woke up at all.
Infinite gratitudes for the lessons learned about human nature that have come from this entire experience of high medical drama in my life over the past ten years. I include what I learned from my parents dying, from being their live-in caregiver, and then from myself being diagnosed with a chronic illness that had been there a long time, unknown and unlabeled.
Infinite gratitudes for the eventual diagnosis of my chronic illness, and the post-surgical confirmation of it being ulcerative colitis. Because for the first time in over 25 years I could comprehend that my life wasn't all my own fault; that I wasn't just a lazy slacker who lacked ambition; that I wasn't an aimless wanderer through life; that in fact many of the problems I'd had in not being able to sustain a career over recent years was not because I was incompetent, but because I was sick. I was SICK, you sons of bitches. Father, you never thought I was competent to handle finances or deal with life, you always thought I was weak and lazy and fucked up—but in fact, father, I was SICK. Getting the diagnosis of my long-term illness took an enormous weight off my back: a weight of guilt, of self-doubt, of poor self-esteem and confusion and suffering. I am still recovering from the psychological impact of years of being labeled a failure, even though I know that it wasn't all my fault, I really was SICK all that time. So fuck you if you still want to blame me for any of that.
Infinite gratitudes for finally being forced by illness and recovery to sort through all the mental drama and psychological bullshit, so that I could realize anew what I had known as a child, but which I let my birth-tribe's anxieties and neuroses about survival beat out of me: that, in fact, the reason I was put here in this lifetime is to make art. To be an artist. To Make, in all the creative modes that I know how to do, and in those modes new to me that I keep discovering and trying out. I was put here to be creative, to be an explosion of creativity. Everything else is secondary. Making art is what I am best at doing, and it's what I'm FOR. The Goddess made me for this. I regret spending so many years believing otherwise. And I do my best to let go of that regret as quickly as it arises.
Infinite gratitudes for also finally understanding that making art is what I'm best at doing, and I'm really not very good at doing anything else. I'm a good composer of good music. I no longer doubt my purpose in life, and I no longer lack self-confidence about it. I know I can do good work, sometimes even great work. It's what I'm good at, and it's what I'm for. And I'm really not very good at doing anything. And that's good enough. That's okay.
Infinite gratitudes for the soul-deepening and self-expanding that these years of hard pain and suffering have made happen in my Self. It has often sucked, and sometimes it still hurts, and a shallow person I am not. I'm still working on being patient and tolerant with shallowness and stupidity when i encounter it—but I'm not working that hard on being patient, because sometimes what people really need is a kick and a slap. This is why the Zen master slaps you with the stick when you start to fall off your meditation cushion.
Infinite gratitudes for that truth that, having been myself through the crucible, the refiner's fire, the forge of making, I can recognize it when I see it in others, and know what to say to them when they need encouragement or direction, should they come to me for that. I am grateful for the insights into people that have been given me, learned the hard way, by going through all that myself—even though sometimes people are afraid of me, or intimidated by my being able to see right through their bullshit to their truest selves.
Infinite gratitudes for somehow having received a push to force myself to do this writing, tonight, when it would have been so much not to. Procrastination, thy name is avoidance. I know it goes on and on, I'm just dumping it all out because I promised to be honest, and clear, and accurate.
Infinite gratitudes for wine and sex and song. Not to be indulged in to the limits of dissipation, but as the things in life that bring us together and make us feel alive and give us reason to go on.
Infinite gratitudes to Perfect harmony Men's Chorus for singing all of the music that has been pouring out of me and written down over the past few years. I am incredibly lucky to be "playing in a band" again where I get to write new music, and hear it performed. Music is the core of my life. Destroy everything else, and there remains an unkillable song. A melody that rises out of the Void, unquenchable, unending, as fluid and continuous a line of music as the vines that grow from the Greening each spring. Where such music is rooted in the Greening of veriditas, it is undying, endless, renewed.
Infinite gratitude for the exaltation and ekstasis of kenosis, kronos, and kairos. The process of emptying that leaves a void in you which can only be filled by the One. "If the only prayer you ever said in your life was "Thank You," that would suffice." —Meister Eckhart
Infinite endless gratitude for this unending creative force that flows through my life like an underground river of sparkling black water that rises up to endlessly fill and overflow the wells and springs of my life with music, art, poetry, and every blend and mix and remix of creativity that is, as I have remembered, my purpose in this life. The black water that fills me, that sustains me, that is the power under life, that which holds me up and gives me reason to go on, always. To go on, even when I don't want to, when I'm exhausted and unable and want only to sleep the long sleep, to go on anyway. "I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on." —Beckett
And so it goes. We begin in despair, and somehow we work our way around to ecstasy, to remembered joy. Because life is nothing if not the quest to remember the joy and light from before we were born, and to which we must all someday return.
Labels: family history, gratitudes, holiday, personal essay