20 for 2020, My Gratitude Challenge

20 for 2020, I called it. On December 6th, I decided to do a Gratitude Marathon of sorts. I would write 20 things I was grateful for each day. I was unsure about it. I didn’t know if shouting out my blessings into the void was appropriate at a time when so many people are grieving.

But I told myself that being grateful was not about pretending you are okay when you are not. It’s about noticing the beauty and joy that coexists with the sadness. If I waited until no one was suffering to appreciate my life, it would never happen. Someone is always hungry or grieving or alone.

My family and I did a gratitude practice before this. We each said three good things about our day at dinner time. I don’t necessarily recommend this even though my kids love it, and we still do it. My husband is not the touchy-feely type. I felt a bit like I was coercing him into doing it.

One time, in my list, I went on about things I was grateful for about him. That he always helps me find lost objects. That he makes pizza from scratch. That I love our new show.”

He went on to say that he was grateful for “the middle eastern restaurant on Robert Street,”

I replied, “I’m always grateful for you. Why aren’t you grateful for me?”

Not my best moment.

My dad passed away seven years ago. On December 8th, his birthday, I decided to write my list about him. We never had a comfortable or easy relationship, and all of my interactions with him were tense and made my chest feel tight.

So instead, I wrote about the experiences he gave me and what I admired about him. We never laughed at each others’ jokes, but he was universally known as a funny guy. He laughed and made other people laugh everywhere he went – waitresses, random people on the train, cashiers. He was thoughtful. I remember him bringing hot chocolate in styrofoam cups to the trash collectors on a cold, snowy day.

I started to realize that I am those things, too. That even though we didn’t get along, the best parts of him still live in me.

I stopped taking things for granted. One day, while I was in the shower, washing my hair with my fancy Italian shampoo, I thought I’d write about things in my bathroom. I thought this would be quick, easy, and fun.

In actuality, it ended up being one of the most humbling and uncomfortable posts I have ever written. I started reading about how one-third of the world’s population does not have access to clean water while I have fresh water coming from my tap or how low-income families in Liberia all share the same toothbrush.

After thinking about those things, I felt deeply uncomfortable feeling grateful for my mascara and my six-step anti-aging regimen. Still, I wrote them down while feeling thankful for the jobs they created and understanding how very much I have.   

I fell in love with my husband all over again. One day, I wrote about when we met, and the first two days I spent with him.

How we laid on the sand at North Beach in Chicago, and he didn’t tell me how sunburned he was getting because he didn’t want to leave. How I wanted to lean over to his towel and kiss him. How he bought me overpriced Bloody Mary’s at his hotel bar, how the server thought we were married, and how we didn’t correct him. How he told me he would call me at 7:35 the next Monday and how he did over and over again.

I could feel in every cell of my body how I felt that day.

Gratitude helped me see the joy in my past. A tightness lives in many of my memories, a self-questioning, but the real beauty of life happens beneath the storyline. A Buddhist belief is that our practice can heal both seven generations into the past and seven generations into the future. When we learn to heal the tightness in our memories, we won’t pass on the fear to our children.

The four months I spent in New York City became not about my broken heart but about drinking freshly squeezed orange juice from a cafe in Grand Central Station, wearing ice blue eyeshadow, and watching movies at the Angelica.

The time I spent in Columbus was not about replaying how I could have kept a lost job. But about wearing a borrowed dirac (traditional Somali dress) and going to my Somali friend’s (who I called my Somali sister) “women’s” wedding party. And a summer spent lying in the sun at my friend’s apartment building pool.

Gratitude helped me reach my goals. This month I exercised nearly every day (compared to about four days a week in November). I also lost five pounds as of today, day 24, in my challenge.

Psychologist David Distanio says gratitude essentially “alters the computations your brain is making,” making you more capable of making decisions based on long-term goals.

Pretty early into my challenge, I decided I was going to give up desserts and alcohol until the week of Christmas and try intermittent fasting. I planned not to eat for the sixteen hours between dinner and a late breakfast.

I have tried intermittent fasting many times without success. What happens is I lay in bed, my stomach growls, and I get anxious that I won’t be able to fall asleep, so I get up and have a bowl of cereal.

However, this time I had a fundamentally different thought. I told myself that it was okay if I didn’t sleep that well and if my stomach growled. I was so full of joy. I did not need to fill up on other things.

Gratitude helped change what I was paying attention to. I stopped doom scrolling. I stopped listening to the news.

I listened to Poetry podcasts and read novels. I lined up all of my Christmas gifts t and appreciated each one. I felt the satisfaction of taking my car to the self-serve car wash.

I looked through old photographs and found the places I used to live on maps. I cleaned out bathroom drawers and noticed the translucent blue of Dawn dish soap. How even plastic shines when wiped clean. 

On the second day of my challenge, I almost gave up. Twenty things seemed laborious.

But I’m so glad I didn’t.

My reluctant husband has even embraced gratitude. He told me that reading my lists made it impossible for him not to start noticing things in his own life. Sometimes, he even volunteers to go first at dinner.

I, too, changed. I stopped needing to be appreciated so much. I had become so full of the beauty of seeing Christmas lights while walking my dog around the neighborhood that I stopped looking to other people to fill me up

Five days have passed since my gratitude challenge ended, and I miss it.  I even started writing a new list today. 

I have spent hundreds of hours of my life meditating.  When you meditate a lot, you see the same stories visiting your brain again and again.  A lot of them are about failure, regret, and pain. 

I am 46 years old, and I am tired of thinking about how I should have done something slightly different when I was nineteen.  How I should have gotten A’s instead of B’s or chosen a more practical major. 

I want to remember moments, names and places.

23 Elliot St. Athens, Ohio, the co-op where I lived in college, with dark wood, honey-mustard yellow paint, and a porch swing. 

Stanislawa Pietrowska, my great-grandma who moved to DuPont, Pennsylvania from Poland, who I loved so much as a little girl even though we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language.

Calo Ristorante, the restaurant in Chicago where I sat for hours, falling in love with the man who would become my husband, at a candle-lit table surrounded by white Christmas lights.

In remembering these simple things, I have found so much happiness in this bleak time.

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