New England Regional Coordinator
I recently celebrated six years of writing in a daily gratitude journal. It’s morphed, over time, with respect to content, format, and style, but it’s always been about one primary practice – to get up every day and focus on what I already have, rather than pissing and moaning about what I don’t have. My intention in these lines for the Legacy Magazine is to introduce the idea that a gratitude practice is a masculine, robust, muscular one that requires every bit of intention a man has and is much deeper than some rose-colored, Pollyanna, feel-good listing of cool shit. What’s included here are just a few thoughts from some snowy February days in New England, where many of us have had to dig deep (metaphorically speaking) to do gratitude work.
February 9 2015
I have been thinking lately about the concept of having a North Star or cynosure (something that serves to guide or direct) to fix my eyes on. In the case of this gratitude journal, that cynosure would be “gratitude first” or “focus my attention on what I already have” or “what’s great about this?” (even when that feels like a real stretch). Look up, find the gratitude star and follow that. It’s easy to lose sight of when I start to be concerned about how well I’m writing, for example, or trying to “get it all down” in some Kerouac frenzy. Gratitude first, that’s my north star. See where that leads and go ahead and write badly. I grant you permission; I absolve you. There’s so much to say, and my tools seem so cumbersome and slow and unwieldy, I opine, so I don’t even start writing. I’m grateful for that thought, as it freed me up to write.
I did not remember, until I saw the date, that today is the sixth anniversary of my starting this daily discipline. I thought about it last week, but haven’t since. I decided to go dig out (good way to put it, given today’s predicted snow accumulation) my oldest notebook and see what I wrote on the inaugural day in 2009. I see that it covered 1 ½ notebook pages, handwritten as they all have been. I entitled it “Book of Gratitude” and centered it at the top of the page. Next line down, centered as well and in parentheses, I wrote “Marcus Aurelius” to remind me that there was a volume from antiquity which began with that emperor expressing gratitude to all the people who had made him what he was. I wanted to always remember that it was muscular and masculine to acknowledge people and to feel genuine emotion for your life and to actually express it. It seems his example was an early cynosure for me. It also appears that I had in mind at that time just listing whatever came to mind that I was grateful for in that moment. Here are some items I listed.
- Library habit.
- Lessons from NF (necrotizing fasciitis in 2004 and my brush with mortality), my divorce in 1992, and the death of WHJ (my father, William Harry Jones, to cancer, when I was five)
- Joy of chicken (referring to the ridiculous rubber chicken I took to work at Newtonville Whole Foods and how much fun our team had with it).
- Monday AM 200 Club (alluding to the fact that the four Whole Foods team members on those mornings had combined ages totaling over 200 years and we exulted in it; Baby Boomer power, yeah, baby!)
- All the Spanish I’ve learned from Latino co-workers.
- PMJ (mom) for (1) music (exposure to wide variety at an early age), (2) books (they were everywhere in the house), (3) note-taking habit (she used to say writers were like catchers, pounding their gloves, waiting for pitches, wanting to catch them all, something like that).
- GML (maternal grandfather) for big part of my conservation ethic (turning off lights, watching water usage).
- Composting at Whole Foods (game-changer for me, not having to waste food that we can’t sell).
- Book reading habit (lifetime)
- NPR and that I have a lot of chances to listen to it.
- Privilege of being on a men’s team for 18 years (both west and east coast).
- Lifetime personal note-taking habit anywhere I am (maybe one of my own 10,000 hour skills that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers?)
- That I can hardly read anything without pen, 3×5 cards and/or highlighter.
And there are more.
I summed it up that day with “feels like an un-dammed river of gratitude.”
I’m glad I’ve had this practice for six years. It sure feels now like a habit, because I notice when I don’t do it (like when we were in Long Beach recently, when I wrote that the hardest thing I had to do was try and get in the hammock without spilling my wine) and something definitely feels “off.” It’s morphed over time in style, in content, in length, and has become secondarily and unexpectedly a writing discipline that is inviolate. I have carved out a space that requires getting up earlier, if I have a morning commitment, so I can still get it done. I have gotten up at 4:30 for years now, so I can write and still be at an opening shift by 6 a.m. at Whole Foods.
Here in this now, six years later, it’s snowing for the third Monday in a row, snowing a lot. The sky, my neighbor’s roof, the ground are all the same white, nearly indistinguishable. Only the built world and surfaces where snow won’t adhere break up the tableau. I remember writing, surrounded by white on Denali in 1986 (it was like being inside a ping pong ball, my climbing buddy Ralph noted), “Into White,” thinking of the Cat Stevens song. Each stanza ends with “everything emptying into white.”
It’s so easy to incline toward how inconvenient this all is, how cold, how much more time is required to do anything outdoors (even getting dressed to go outdoors), how tempting to move to a different and warmer climate the older we get. That’s where the discipline of asking, “What’s great about this?” can help.
I asked all the men on our regional call last night to name one great thing about snow.
Here’s the list:
- Job creation (snow shoveling, removal)
- Night is so bright outside
- Humbling to be pinned down like this
- Meeting people in the neighborhood
- Can experience water in all three states (solid, liquid, gas); infinite variety
- Shoveling at night is so quiet and peaceful (you can almost hear the snowfall)
- Fantastic skiing
- Clean all over
- Watching kids play in it
- Daughter home, took a ride, got great photos
- Everyone works together
- Can check for proper foot alignment (with respect to ChiRunning/Walking, a discipline I teach) in fresh snow like no other time of the year
What a list of glories as we descend further into white in this hemisphere and what a chance to practice what I started six years ago.
There’s stuff and people all over to be grateful for and the more you look the more you see.
February 15, 2015
Woke up this morning unsure of whether I’m writing in my personal Book of Gratitude or whether I’m writing for this next issue of the MDI Legacy Magazine, any submissions for which are due to Jim Ellis today. That’s not a problem, really, but I am aware of a different guiding spirit and a different internal editor than usual sitting here with me. I was also aware that when I got up to piss during the night I was thinking about how to marshal thoughts in a more organized and less spontaneous Kerouac way, as is my wont. I can negotiate this, with one foot in each place, if I just keep the pen moving like Annie Dillard says in A Writing Life, as if it’s a miner’s pick and I’m working along a seam following it and unclear where it will lead. Tolkien followed his Hobbit whom he hadn’t yet named and who just showed up.
Where my miner’s pick is working at this moment is abundance. I am looking at abundance out my window to the north and it’s hard to avoid. You want abundance, we got abundance, white cold abundance on the ground, in the trees, on roofs, under cars, flouring and powdering down and dancing like a dervish, whitewashing every old industrial riverfront town like this in the northeast.
This level of abundance (snowbundance?) makes me think of lines from several and varied sources. From Twelfth Night I think “the snow it snoweth every day,” instead of Shakespeare’s rain in the song. From Fiddler on the Roof I think how Tevya cried out “If money is a curse, may God strike me with it and may I never recover.” I can hear Paul Newman’s voice as Cool Hand Luke saying sarcastically to the warden, “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, cap’n.” Finally I hear the refrain of my wife Karen’s late stepfather saying, “That’s a genteel sufficiency and any more would be a superfluity.” Not sure where this stuff, the byproduct of the latest of five major storms in these parts, lives, with respect to any of these, but it’s hard to beat as a portal into a morning’s gratitude work.
My long-term friend and climbing bum buddy Ralph, now 79, likes to say “growing old isn’t for sissies.” Well, neither is gratitude work. It’s about as muscular and masculine a discipline as one can practice, it seems to me. I don’t know when our earth mother will decide there’s enough snow, though if I were in charge I would say we’re there, well past a genteel sufficiency.
I was moved nearly to tears myself, when our friend, whom we were visiting at their ski house in New Hampshire overnight said “I’m grateful every day for the life we have here. Neither of us has to work, we can get up when we want, make love when we want and eat when we want and ski when we want. I never take it for granted.”
What stirred me about it was the authenticity and the vulnerability and the spontaneity and how she made it present in the quotidian instant, uncoupled from any religious context. Just a cri de couer from a human being moved by what she has. I was grateful for that example. Finally today I’m thinking of the almost unbelievable humility of Sir Isaac Newton, whose work pretty much described the world until Einstein gave it a tweak. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and said “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” you have to admit he spoke a truth for the ages in just a few pithy words. When Isaac Newton (would he be called “Newt” on his men’s team? Karen always loves to ask how men get their nicknames) said, “If I’ve seen further then other men, it’s because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” he spoke the same kind of transcendent language.
He recognized what he had achieved and had a healthy respect for it and, like Marcus Aurelius, knew damn well what had made it possible, indeed, what had made him possible, and didn’t hold back from saying so.