Radical Gratitude in Real Time

[This is the transcript of a message I was asked to share with the congregants of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hamburg, NY in November 2013.]




I once had a writing mentor who told me that the way to the universal is through the particular.

What I believe she meant by that is this: if we tell a personal story in a compelling way, readers will make the story their own. They will find meaning in the personal story of another and apply that meaning to help them understand or solve an issue they are facing in their own lives. It’s how our remarkable, adaptable human brains work.

So today I’m planning to milk that concept for all it’s worth. And since this is a church, I thought I’d start with a confession. In fact, brace yourself. I’ve got a whole series of confessions to share with you today.

I’ve spent the last two weeks, working away from home—in Virginia, to be exact. And while I was down there, I took the opportunity to write my portion of today’s sermon.

It was good.

I’m sure it was good.

I hand wrote it because my work down there consisted of long, exhausting days on the computer and I didn’t want to spend any more time than I absolutely had to staring at a screen. I wrote everything in a spiral notebook much like the one I have up here with me today.

But not in this one.

The one I wrote my sermon portion in must have remained down there in Virginia, having fun without me. Somehow, I managed to leave without it, lose it along the way, or misplace it once I returned home. It exists, somewhere, but I’ll be darned if I know where.

See, life has been a little hectic lately. I’m stuck smack in the middle of the sandwich generation—with aging parents and up-and-coming kids—and I’m trying to finish writing a novel in the spaces between their needs. Also, my husband’s job has been put on the chopping block, results to be determined in February. So we’ve all been…shall we say…a little on edge. And I have been more than a little bit forgetful–walking into another room and forgetting what I was heading for…putting the napkin in the sink and the fork in the trash…that sort of thing.

So, since my first draft sermon took a hike, I decided to go with Plan-B.

Plan-B is today’s message, in which I will walk you through the step-by-step process of Radical Gratitude. Or at least, my process of getting to Radical Gratitude. Because let’s face it, if Radical Gratitude means being grateful for bad things that happen to you (like a runaway sermon), well, not very many of us are sanguine enough to feel gratitude at the moment a bad thing happens.

Can’t you just picture it? “Oh, I have a flat tire! How wonderful! Maybe something really great will happen while I’m stuck here on the side of the road and it will change my life forever. Yay. I can’t wait to see what blessings will come from this flat tire.”

No, most of us don’t think that way. The first instinct when bad things happen to us is to complain. It’s almost as if it’s a prescription for dealing with the process. Step One: Be Cranky About Your Life Circumstances. Step Two: Wallow a bit in that crankiness. Step Three: Put On Your Gratitude Glasses and Take a Closer Look.

So…I am going to demonstrate Step One for you, by providing a list of my current complaints. Bear with me. I promise this has a happy ending.


Complaint #1
I spent that aforementioned 2-weeks in Virginia doing computer work from 9am to 11pm, only breaking for meals and the occasional quick hike or sanity nap.

Complaint #2
Also noted before, and as a direct result of Complaint Number One, I lost the carefully written, sane and calm discussion of Radical Gratitude that I had written up, intending to deliver today.

Complaint #3
I have a son in his senior year of High School. And we are smack in the middle of researching college, fielding sports recruiters, filling out applications, requesting teacher references, begging for financial aid, and…I should mention that none of these tasks appear to be a top priority for him.

Complaint #4
Bright and early the morning after I had driven ten (straight) hours home from my working trip, my husband and I set out for Jamestown, New York, to help move my 91-year-old mother-in-law out of her independent living cottage and into her new room in an assisted living facility. So we have been sorting, moving, consoling, filling out forms, and packing up her house for the past two days, leaving our house each morning by 8am and returning home at roughly 8pm. All of these tasks need to happen while keeping one’s cool when said lovely mother-in-law asks five times in as many minutes where her purse is or what her new address will be, and doesn’t cousin Martha want that shower seat back? Preserving the dignity of everyone in this situation turned out to be the most exhausting challenge of the day.

Complaint #5
I have a daughter in her fourth year of college, studying in New York City for the semester, and living in a somewhat scary tenement house in Brooklyn, populated, we found out after paying the (New-York-sized) security deposit, by mostly Caribbean men. And if you’ve ever traveled to the Caribbean, you have probably noticed that Caribbean men are often not…shall we say…SUBTLE in their pursuing of anyone they see as a potential romantic object. And pretty much any woman is a potential romantic object. My daughter is 21, and quite cute, if I do say so myself.

Complaint #6
Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving happens at my house every year. I have three kids who will all be here, with or without their significant others, still to-be-determined. My mother is flying up early that holiday week to stay with us for ten days, and we will probably also bring up my mother-in-law for the celebrations, or possibly take them down to her for a day-after celebration. Oh, and I should mention that my mother is quite a bit like Phyllis Diller. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, is more like Phyllis Schlafly. The resulting interactions can leave me feeling a little schizophrenic.

Complaint #7
CHRISTMAS. Oy. Less than a month after Thanksgiving this year. You are all feeling this pressure—or will be soon—so I won’t dwell on that one. Besides, it’s Christmas! I’m not allowed to be a Grinch.

Complaint #8
I am utterly exhausted from all of these crazy work / family / life duties and quite literally might fall asleep right here at the podium. So please, just catch me when I doze off, all right?

Complaint #9
As a result of all this rapidly accumulating stress, I have a bright red sty growing happily and healthily beneath my right eye. Be sure to stop and say hello to it before you leave the church today. I’m sure it will appreciate the attention.


So…having listened to me spout off my lengthy and cranky list, you may be asking yourself, “Where’s the gratitude in that?”

I’ll show you.

With my list of complaints all done, I am now going to put on my gratitude glasses and walk you through my own personal process of finding the good—of seeing the silver lining, of taking lemons and making lemonade. Call it whatever you like, but there’s a reason we have so many clichéd expressions to describe the process. Because we all have the ability to see every incident in whatever light we choose.

As my co-author, Andy Bienkowski, has said, “What you CHOOSE to remember (because it is a choice), and how you CHOOSE to interpret it (also a choice), determines who you are.”

And I’ll say that again, because it bears repeating: What you CHOOSE to remember and how you CHOOSE to interpret it determines who you are.

This second recounting of my list, then, is me choosing gratitude. Think of it as a TELL AND SHOW, instead of a show and tell. I’m a practical person, and if I can see something done by someone else, I’m much better at doing it myself. Perhaps you’re the same. So, here we go.

My Complaint List, Reimagined:


Gratitude Lesson #1 
Yes, I spent two weeks working on a computer harder than I have ever worked before, but it was on my writing, on my new novel. And the reason I could spend so much good, focused time working, was because I was awarded a fellowship to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. It’s a place where artists are given awards of time and space to do what they need to do to create. And I created 67,115 words towards my new novel. I was served three meals a day by the wonderful staff and all I had to do was write. A blessing not everyone can take advantage of. I had supportive people back home willing to take care of themselves, to keep the home fires burning, and to feed the cat while I was gone. Knowing everything was fine back home made it so much easier to focus and get the work done.

Gratitude Lesson #2
I may have lost that other sermon, but it forced me to get creative and come up with something new—this one!—that while not the same sort of message at all, is interesting and unique in its own way, and genuine in its intent. I had no time to be clever and reflective and deep. To be the AU-TER. So I’m being me. And I’m writing this first draft, longhand, in our Jeep, in the dark, as my husband drives us home, after our long day in Jamestown, tending to the needs of his—of our—mother.

Gratitude Lesson #3
I have a son! And he’s almost all the way to 18! He survived adolescence! And he still loves and respects me! (Even if he is too cool to show it in public.) He’s healthy and smart and he will figure out what he wants to do. He isn’t rushing into a decision. So whatever he chooses will be more likely to be the right decision for him. He cares enough to think it through and to try to get it right the first time. What a blessing that is. I am so fortunate to have this opportunity to help him get launched into life. To be on the front lines of his decision-making and to have him still care what I think.

Gratitude Lesson #4
Well, if you have ever helped an aging parent or parent-in-law distill and move their whole life down to the next level of care, you know what a minefield it can be. It’s hard to see a loved one decline, and harder still to see the loved one have to admit to his or her decline. Let’s face it, all of us, deep inside, still think we are young. That first look in the mirror every morning can be such a shock.         (Who is that old man/woman looking back at me? Where did he/she come from? And what is he/she doing wearing my clothes?)   But in the midst of a long day of organizing and sorting, we came upon several albums of old photographs. And flipping through them, we were reminded of how much love we have shared and of the good lives that have been lived by all of us.  (But can you believe we ever dressed that way?? What were we thinking??)  Also, a bit later, in the midst of carefully packing the bone china cups and saucers for safe keeping, I had an epiphany. I realized that wrapping and protecting these beautiful, fragile, old, and utterly unique pieces of china…wasn’t so very different from what we were doing on a bigger scale. We were wrapping my mother-in-law with love, getting her to a warm, comfortable place where she will be well taken care of, and helping to protect her—this beautiful, fragile, old, and utterly unique woman for as long as God chooses to let us have her in our lives. After that, I cherished the job of wrapping the china even more.

Gratitude Lesson #5
Yes, my daughter is living in a tenement house with centipedes in the bathroom (shared with all the men on her floor), roaches in the kitchen (shared by the whole house—on a different floor), and yes, sometimes she can’t quite seem to get the key to work in the front door and she has to stand on the street in the dark and fumble nervously. But here’s the thing: she’s in school, studying to be an architect. And one of the things she is most interested in doing, is reimagining and revitalizing low-rent housing. What better way to learn what needs fixing, than to actually live in the sort of place that she wants to someday design? Once we talked about that, it took away the fear and gave her a focus, and a purpose.  Oh, and just in case you were worried about her safety, all those Caribbean men took a very brotherly interest in her and have been trying to make sure she is safe and has what she needs. She has never once had an untoward advance made on her. They seem delighted to have a “little sister” to watch out for.

Gratitude Lesson #6
Thanksgiving. Well, it is what it is. And at my house it’s a big rowdy, delicious mess. But this year my oldest daughter is bringing us an organic, free-range turkey from the farm that supplies the store she works in. And she’s getting it at a big discount. And she always makes a giant pot of mashed potatoes and they are to die for. And my mother is bringing her recipe for apple crumb pie and she will make that the day before. And it is also to die for. And we’ll all have crazy fun and maybe go Black Friday shopping and definitely eat too much and fall asleep on the couch…and the floor of the living room, when the tryptophan from all that turkey gobbling kicks in.

Gratitude Lesson #7
Christmas? Well, I’m not even going to touch that. Yes, it’s going to come barreling down on us all, but it will be great. It always is. (The stockings are my favorite part.)

Gratitude Lesson #8
Yes, I am exhausted. But aren’t we all? Isn’t life exhausting? And being so tired has made me far less nervous about delivering this message…because, frankly, I just don’t have the time or the energy to be nervous. So as a result, you are getting the real, unvarnished, true-blue me. Actually, the jury is still out as to whether or not that’s a good thing from your perspective, but from mine, this whole exhaustion thing has worked out really well.

Gratitude Lesson #9
Number Nine. Ah, the lovely sty. I’m really not sure what the radical gratitude moment is for that giant ugly boil below my eye. I’ll have to keep thinking about that one and let you know. And maybe, when I do figure it out, I’ll take a much-needed nap…and I’ll be sure and have the sty get back to you with the answer.