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Notes on Gratitude

Last year, around Thanksgiving, I wrote a post about how I was feeling out of sorts and crying all the time. I had fallen into a hole of shoulds and the bully in my brain was having a field day with me. Over and over I told her to shut up, but she had more stamina than I did. Read that post here.

As the holidays swung into gear, the result of my brain’s bully tactics was a mindset of scarcity and sadness, disconnect and loneliness. I thought a lot about what I no longer had:  mother, father, little girl fantasies. I was (and still am) far from figuring out grief—the impact it has on me and the rules it plays by. Grief is like a magic trick. Just when you think you figured it out, you realize your understanding was only an illusion. Tweet: Grief is like a magic trick. Just when you think you figured it out, you realize your understanding was only an illusion.

Over my Thanksgiving meal of filet mignon, I ruminated about tears and grief and shoulds. Ruminating did not make me feel better. It never does, so I drank some gin and inebriated those thoughts. I went on with life best as possible and considered bypassing my annual tradition of decorating the house. After all, we were going to be out of town for Christmas. But on the battlefield of my brain, not doing what I’d always done felt like capitulation. I wasn’t ready to wave a white flag, so I got up off the couch and told Tom I wanted to get our mountain of decorations out of the storage unit. Off we went.

I didn’t plan it—couldn’t have—but as I walked boxes from the car into the house, each trip was an opportunity to remember how much the ritual of filling my house with holiday spirit means to me. To Tom and Olivia, too. I unpacked one box and then another and took the time to linger over various treasures: the fake wreath glued together in preschool by Olivia, the tree-shaped advent calendar from my mom, the holiday themed snow globe from my dad. Unlike years past when I rushed to get the job done, this time I savored the process. I allowed old memories to roll around like wine on my tongue. I tasted and felt them. Wholeheartedly. I enjoyed each one and was still sad, but I also felt a sense of peacefulness—excavated from inside me by the combination of thinking, feeling, and doing. That’s when I remembered scarcity’s antidote, which is gratitude, and that gratitude is a practice. For some people, including me, it’s a spiritual practice.

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Brené Brown defines spirituality as follows:

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to one another by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and belonging. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

The ritual around what I had in front of me at the moment—my beloved holiday treasures, my warm home, my healthy family—connected me to loved ones, both present and absent, and to myself. I wasn’t lost in the past, but the combination of memory and routine grounded me and brought deeper meaning to the feelings I was struggling with. When I finished my decorating ritual, I looked around and realized that I felt better. My perspective had shifted and I was grateful for the change. I wanted to find a way to carry that feeling forward. It was time to take the next step in my burgeoning spiritual evolution.

I logged onto my computer and ordered myself a Christmas present. Two weeks later, a box arrived at my house. In it was an altar cloth, a box of incense, and one Manjushri statue.

I’m shy to share this part of my journey because the majority of people I know live a more traditionally spiritual lifestyle, one filled with prayer and white collars and contrition. It’s been a challenge for me to enhance my spirituality in ways that stray from my upbringing. A Manjushri statue is about as far away as I can get. I’ll share anyway, to help others who struggle know they aren’t alone and to help myself accept what is true for me:  There are as many unique paths to spirituality as there are people; and any path that connects me to a greater power and to this life in love and belonging is the right one.

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As soon as the holidays were over, I found the perfect spot to set up my altar. I spread out the cloth, unwrapped the incense, and scavenged for additional items. I had no experience creating a spiritually relevant ritual, but figured the only person I had to satisfy was me. I gathered an incense holder, a portrait Olivia had painted of me when she was nine years old (I look content), and my rock with the word “Believe” etched into it. I placed Manjushri, a Buddhist Bodhisattva who represents intelligence, wisdom, and memory, smack in the middle of the cloth and placed everything else around him. I got votive candles and a lighter. I gathered together words I’d heard and ones I’d read about food as an ally, about the difference between want and desire, and about cultivating fearlessness during difficult times. I grabbed my copies of The Pocket Pema Chödrön, Brave Enough and Rising Strong. I bought a plastic container and printed out Liz Gilbert's post about her happiness jar ritual. The mermaids, well, they reminded me of happy times spent in beautiful places. I found a small bell and took a deep breath. I was ready.

In the months between then and now, I’ve performed my ritual many times, not daily, but as often as possible because I feel better when I do. And each time increases my stamina. I light a candle and some incense. I ring the bell. I breathe in and out. I study my thoughts without judgment. I read out loud words that are meaningful to me, that remind me how far I’ve come in my healing journey, and how far I’ve yet to go. I read words that help me feel brave, words that inspire me, and words that bring me a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose. Words that simultaneously broaden my horizon and shrink the universe. Words that help me rise strong. I contemplate my intentions and give myself permission. Sometimes, I ask for help. My ritual changes from one time to the next. I go with my gut and do what feels right. In so doing, I feel more connected—more in touch with myself, the people in my life, and the spiritual energy around me.

Each time I drag my chair in front of my altar I still feel kind of weird, like I’m breaking a cast iron rule. But that’s okay. I love myself enough to take the chance. For years, my conflicted relationship with the religion of my youth jaded my view of spirituality, and I lived without it in any form. I was worse for the wear. Now I feel like a newborn, learning anew what higher power means to me. Whether it's "the one absolutely and infinitely perfect spirit who is the Creator of all," or the ability to feel grateful and thankful to all mankind, or the inextricable connection we have with one another and our surrounding, I don't know. What I do know is that spirituality, and my ritual to embrace it, shuts up the bully in my brain and, in small increments, helps me become the person I am meant to be. Maybe that's the highest power of all.   

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  1. Tracey,

    Your posts on gratitude are gifts to each of us, and this is no exception.

    I love reading about your spiritual journey and am inspired by the altar and ritual you've created for yourself.

    Please keep sharing.


  2. I love how you ended this post, about not knowing what's beyond this world as we experience it with our most often used 5 senses. It's ok to not know, to wonder, to be open to the many possibilities. Like you, I'm open to the possibilities, and yes, if that carries us to be the best we can be for humanity's sake, I know we are on the right track.

  3. A gorgeous post, Tracey! You are so generous to welcome us into your sacred space. You've encouraged and affirmed me, and all your readers, I'm sure.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this part of yourself! I also struggle with the "holidays" and have always blamed it on Depression and S.A.D. Now I can see there is hope for me! Glad you found your path to Peace!

  5. Hi, Tracey – you are more "found" along the spirituality path than so many who practice a mindless pattern of obedience taught to them from childhood and never truly reflected upon, just checking off boxes. You seem to be navigating toward authenticity. Nothing, nothing could be more giving and loving of others than the journey you describe. Guilt and shame are a waste of time and talent. I hope you stay the course! Namaste. ❤️

  6. I think you might have mentioned this before, but we have similar little altars. I tried for many years when I was younger to practice a religion so that I could belong. I studied bible, went to chapel, and prayed, but none of those things stuck with me as I got older. I experimented in Buddhism and while I find Buddhism to be most closely related to my core beliefs, it still wasn't a complete match. So now I have my own little ritual, much like yours, that I do every day. I find it connects me to others, to kindness and compassion, but mostly, to my true self. Like you said, it allows me to slowly become the person I feel I was meant to be and there is no better "spiritual" practice than that. Thank you for sharing. I love your practice and your altar!

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