Big Island 1 group

Notes on Gratitude

Last week I attended a one day writing workshop. I figured this was a good opportunity to tell you a little bit more about workshops in general and this one in particular, and why I’m writing about them in relation to gratitude and courage.

Writing workshops can take all manner of shape, size, and form. The duration of a workshop can last from a couple of hours to a full day to weekends or a week or even longer.  Some workshops focus on specific genres, like fiction, memoir or poetry. Others can focus on topics like healing through writing or how to write for travel magazines. Some can be a hodgepodge, a little bit of every type of writing. Some are gender specific. Some are lead by world renowned writers, and some are lead by English teachers or regular “joes,” people who’ve survived something by writing about it and want to help you do the same. Some include additional activities like yoga or (my personal favorite) wine tasting. If you can name it, somewhere out there there’s a writing workshop for it.

The workshop I attended this last time was called Big Island Writers’ Workshop for Women because the leader, Beth Bornstein Dunnington, lives primarily in Hawaii and because it’s a workshop just for women. Beth takes her show on the road, and I was lucky enough to be a participant when Big Island met Van Nuys. I like one day workshops for the obvious reason that they’re only one day. It’s hard for me to get away for long weekends let alone full weeks, although I’ve done both on several occasions. I also like one day-ers because they aren’t too expensive. Most of all, I like to take workshops to meet new people and to make connections. I’m not a professional writer, and though professional writers take writing workshops, often the workshops I attend are filled with people who like to write for writing’s sake and because it helps them heal and makes them feel better. Big Island was no different.

A friend of Beth’s opened her lovely home to us (taking a workshop in someone’s home cuts down on costs and increases intimacy) where we congregated at 10:00 am on Sunday morning to write and to share. By the way, that’s another component of many writing workshops. You not only have to write, but you usually have to read what you wrote out loud. Don’t worry. Reading out loud scares everyone. You get used to it. Since this was not a workshop on the craft of writing, but on opening our hearts and exploring ourselves on the page, there was no commentary permitted after we read. This kept a safe environment for sharing where we didn’t have to worry about feeling judged on the quality of our written word or perfection of our punctuation. We were free simply to share.

The writing day started, as many do, with a prompt. Beth gave us the prompt and we had 30 minutes to write about it. The prompt was, “The reason to enter the room to write today. . .”

On one hand, when I started to write I was not surprised by what came up for me. Connection is a passion of mine, and has been since I lived for a long time during my journey with my daughter feeling alone and isolated. So when I started writing from the prompt, I wrote about connection. I wrote about meeting new people and sharing my story and hearing other stories as well. Writing about why I’m telling our story led me to write about courage, which is where – on the other hand – I ended up pleasantly shocked.

When Olivia got sick, fear became my constant companion. Fear yelled, I’ve got shot-gun! and nestled in next to me for the duration of a road trip whose end was nowhere in sight. Fear often grabbed the wheel, and, let me tell you, fear is a crappy driver. Living in fear made me feel responsible for all that had gone wrong in my life, and in Olivia’s, and it was exhausting. Eventually, I realized I needed a new guide. With help from my lady crush, Brené Brown, I learned about courage.

“Ordinary courage,” Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “is about putting our vulnerability on the line.” Courage is important because it’s one of the three components, along with compassion and connection, that leads us to being able to live life from a place of worthiness. (Yes, Brené helped me find connection, too!) I started discovering courage everywhere – in the kids who struggled to get well, the parents who struggled to help them, and, with some practice, in myself. Courage helped me cope. Courage helped me grab fear by the scruff of the neck and kick him to the curb. Putting our vulnerability on the line can sum up a day in the life of anyone in treatment for anything, as well as a day in the life of a writer at a workshop. Courage comes in a wide variety of packaging.

As I sat that Sunday morning and started to write about courage, I realized I wanted to keep writing about it because, in this day and age, it can be hard to find our courage and harder to hold on to it. People rush to judgment and say (or write) such harsh and hurtful words with no hesitation whatsoever. I felt secure enough to explore my thoughts on the subject and wrote in my notebook about how scared I sometimes feel telling my story and writing about my daughter. I wrote about looking back on events and situations we survived with a fresh set of eyes and seeing them for the courageous acts they were, and I wrote about times my courage faltered. I wrote about the strength it requires to stand up for who and what you believe in. Then I wrote this:

So many times over the years, I’d heard the words, “My story matters because I matter.” I’d nod my head and think, Yep. That’s true. For everyone except me.  Then my daughter got sick. I learned the hard way that my story mattered. My story had to matter because if my story didn’t matter then neither did my daughter’s, and I absolutely positively could not let her go on thinking that her story did not matter – that she did not matter. 

I might never have found my courage if my daughter hadn’t gotten sick. I might have continued through life oblivious to the miracles all around me because my eyes weren’t open to them, because I had no understanding of the gratitude I could feel in the simplest of things:  my daughter sleeping in her own bed, a delicious meal enjoyed together, a shared laugh over a silly kitten video.

When I fall into the trap of comparison or forget how far we’ve come, I center myself. I ground myself in the present moment and remember to live my life by following the flagstones that courage places before me. It’s not hard. I just have to remember to take each first step forward.

I put down my pen. Yes, I realized. And, Wow. I have always believed that my daughter’s story mattered. She’s the most important person in the world to me. Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked hard to believe my story matters just as much as hers. This belief combats shame and bolsters self-esteem. But it wasn’t until the moment I wrote and reread the words, My story had to matter because if my story didn’t matter then neither did my daughter’s that I had an “a-ha” moment. I realized that I hadn’t ratcheted back and studied the picture of my relationship with my daughter from far enough away, even after all the words I’ve thought and written about her and me, what we survived, and about spirituality and our universal connection. It was as if I’d pictured us like a pair of double yellow lines on the road, coursing through time next to each other in perfect parallel.

The fact is that my daughter’s storyline wouldn’t exist without mine. She is her own person with her own ideas, her own magic, and her own courage. She has her own story to craft, but her story’s launching off place was me. I had been so willing to believe that the genesis of what had gone wrong with my daughter was me. In this moment, I realized that the genesis of what had gone right was me, too. Courage helped me believe this to be true, and to write it down without feeling like a two-bit hustler trying to pick a pocket.

First steps forward on the journey of living a more courageous life come in as many packages as there are people. A Sunday morning writing workshop, where I was able to draw energy from connection with other women, was another first step forward for me. If you’re looking for ways to be courageous that don’t include jumping out of airplanes or scaling cliffs, you might consider trying one. I’m never sorry when I do.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?: How can we expect our kids to take ownership of their stories if we struggle with taking ownership of our own?

Read my gratitude post on Amy Ferris's one day writing HerShop here.


  1. Oh, Tracey. This is beautiful and wise and courageous–just like you! I always learn something when you share, and this one speaks right to my heart. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful post, Tracey. This reminds me of a saying I heard years ago from a therapist: "You can't give what you didn't get."

    I had sought professional help to relieve some stress from parenting, as well as to be a better parent. I wanted more patience with my kids. I wanted parenting to be feel more joyful. When I was a child, my parents had their hands full with my brother, and because I was fairly self-sufficient, I practically raised myself. But I missed out on some important lessons when it came to expressing and dealing with feelings.

    My therapist said that unresolved childhood issues can crop up when your own child reaches the stage where you didn't get what you needed from your own parents. I didn't want to repeat the failings of my parents or fall short of what I felt (and still feel) is the greatest and hardest job I've ever had. Through therapy, I was able work through some painful childhood experiences in order to be a better parent.

    I didn't see myself as courageous back then. Rather, I thought I was less than whole. Over time, I realized I had been courageous. I was able to face my weaknesses, which I realize now took guts.

    Thanks, Tracey, for reminding me that I had been stronger than I'd realized. So were you!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this story Susan. Yes, I think so often we look at ourselves as weak or failing as you say — even as we're doing the work to heal and improve. This must change! It's not easy! It takes courage to give ourselves credit. I don't remember being taught this lesson directly, but it seems we all grew up learning that to think high thoughts of ourselves, which is not the same as being conceited or full of ourselves, is selfish. i know for sure I got the message that I was selfish. It is so interesting to me. I was an only-child. My 1/2-sister was 16 years older than I and moved out of the house before I really have memories of her. I feel the exact same way that you do — that I missed out on important lessons during those early years. I started therapy when my daughter was an infant for many of the same reasons you went to therapy. I think parenting is all these great things – joyous etc. but I've also worked hard to be able to say, without feeling guilty, that parenting is really fucking hard too. It just is. It is the toughest and most rewarding job we'll ever have. Thank you again for sharing this story. It isn't that we are courageous, we aren't appreciating the courage we have!

  4. Yes, parenting is fucking hard! Granted, it's easier for some. We don't get to pick the personality of our children, of course. I remember when I volunteered at my children's school and a mom would drop off cupcakes to be passed out for her child's birthday. To avoid complaints like, "But I wanted the one with the pink flower on it!", the teacher would warn the class, "You get what you get."

    That's how babies are born, too! lol

    Between parents' personalities and experiences, and a child's temperament and abilities, raising a child can be a relatively smooth road or a very rocky one, and there are roundabouts and turnoffs cropping up along the entire journey. For those of us who found parenting to NOT be the the fruition of our youthful fairly tale dreams, it's better to try to stop the cycle of lessons unlearned. However that is done – self help books, therapy, etc. – to not try to improve ourselves (as you say, taking ownership of our stories) at critical times in our children's lives is a disservice to our kids. And maybe to our grandchildren!

    No one is perfect. No parent is perfect. I get that. But we still have to strive to do our best when it comes to parenting. In fact, I take it a step further because I do believe my parents did their best. But my standards are different. I ask myself, "Is your best good enough?" If not, I reach out for help.

  5. This is the first time seeing your website and I have already signed up! Thanks for sharing your story about writing through fear. Being in a writing class certainly helps you open up. I followed the link to the HerShop site and it looks fascinating. Maybe I will see you at a local writing workshop one of these days and we can finally meet! Keep up the wonderful work!

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