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Posts Tagged ‘gratitude’

Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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As I write this, Nala is sitting right next to me keeping me company, as she usually does while I write blog posts on my laptop. Actually, in this case, she is sprawled upside down, limbs akimbo, the top of her head smushed up into the side of her bed so I can’t see her eyes, only her white ear and lots of paw.

Sleepy dog.

Sometimes, she curls up in a little ball instead.

Four years ago this month, I saw a photo of Nala on the Silicon Valley Humane Society’s website. She looked scruffy and scrawny, and I fell instantly in love.

When I met her, she wasn’t interested in me. She didn’t want to snuggle, and she seemed nervous around people. She was much more interested in exploring the shades covering the window. I put her on a 24-hour hold so I could sleep on such a major decision. But I went directly from the shelter to the pet store to get everything a little one-and-a-half-year dog could need.

Nala loves to howl when she gets excited.

Nala loves to howl when she gets excited.

When I first got her, I was really excited every time I was on my way home because I knew I’d be seeing her soon. I figured that eventually this feeling would fade. But four years later, it hasn’t changed a bit. Whether I’m coming home from an errand or a long trip, I always look forward to seeing her.

Nala, Wisdom Dog

Things aren’t always easy. Nala has been suffering from increased separation anxiety the last few months, and I worry about her even while I’m trying to help her adjust. And Nala worries about me too sometimes, even while she’s licking my hands and staying close, doing her best to cheer me up. But we get through the hard times together.

She's also a great listener.

She’s also a great listener. (Photo by Yvette Ono)

Adopting Nala has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. She is my constant companion and my best doggie friend. The flow of unconditional love between us is one of the most beautiful parts of my life. She makes every day better with her presence.

I love my little dog.

Best friends!

Best friends! (Photo by Yvette Ono)

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Here is a beautiful thing.

In the midst of stress, there is connection. In the midst of sorrow, there is laughter. In the midst of fatigue, there is anticipation. In the midst of loss, there is appreciation. In the midst of chaos, there is the act of kindness that matters because of its mere existence.

In articles about dealing with stress, the idea of gratitude is repeated over and over again. Whether or not it is an active strategy, I find that gratitude and its cousin appreciation bubble up so easily these days. Perhaps because I need more help I have more to be grateful for. Or perhaps the contrast makes my appreciation keener. Or maybe I’m always this way and I just don’t usually pay as much attention. It is hard to know.

I stood in the grass at Shoreline Amphitheatre this weekend, my vest zipped up against the cool evening air. I watched Passion Pit play their song “Take a Walk,” and I was so happy to be there. I watched a friend of mine win the Andre Norton Award on Saturday night, and in the middle of tearing up, I was so happy to be there. I ate a late evening snack at my favorite local crepe place with a group of friends old and new, and I was so happy to be there.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

A friend told me this weekend about a friend of hers who read my blog post about stress last week. Apparently it had a big impact, being the right post at the right time for this friend, who has been going through a lot herself recently, but she was embarrassed to write and tell me. I laughed and said, “I was embarrassed to write that post too.” I am so happy I decided to write something that mattered to someone.

I am so happy that so many of you have reached out to offer support and tell me it’s totally fine to spend some time staring at trees. And I completely agree. Staring at trees can be pretty great. So can eating pie and reading fluffy novels and petting little dogs and wearing a fantastic dress.

I am so happy to be here right now.

I am always looking for reasons to be happy, and I found so many of them this weekend. And perhaps that’s what I feel the most grateful for: my ability to find those reasons, and your willingness to create those reasons with me.

Thank you.

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Many years ago, when I was just starting up my music teaching studio, a friend and I would get together every Thursday morning to talk about writing. Sometimes we wrote to prompts when we were together, sometimes we shared what we’d been working on, sometimes we just talked. I was writing in a somewhat desultory way, since my main focus at the time was still music. But even so, I loved writing and I had the vision of seven-year-old me in the back of my mind.

My friend and I both read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life and then discussed it. And we decided to implement its advice on charming notes.

Photo Credit: LarimdaME via Compfight cc

What is a charming note? Exactly what it sounds like. Every week, each of us would choose one writer to whom we’d write a letter telling them how much their work had meant to us. We bought pretty paper on which to write these letters when we couldn’t get our hands on the relevant email addresses, and we began sending them out.

There is something very uplifting about writing to someone unknown to you and telling them something both true and kind for no other reward than the joy of doing it.

I was reminded of the charming note ritual a few weeks ago when Jonathan Carroll talked about a charming note he once sent, and the response he received. It made me glad all over again that I had written those letters, and I wondered if maybe I could start writing them again, especially now that more writers have email addresses and websites so I can avoid the hassle of buying new stationary and remembering to purchase stamps more regularly.

Because charming notes matter. I know how much they matter. Jonathan Carroll said, “It’s a very important thing to tell someone what they do genuinely matters to you. Especially artists, who work so much of the time in solitude and receive little feedback other than reviews.” It means so much to know your efforts have been genuinely appreciated. It means so much to hear how you’ve helped someone or inspired someone or given that person something to love.

When I’m working, I’m alone (except for the little dog fast asleep beside me). When I’m writing a novel, it can be months and months before anyone gets to see any of the results of my time, and even then, they are often reading it as a favor to me so they can tell me how to make it better. So much of my work goes on in my own head, a huge contrast from the days when I spent hours of my time engaged in face-to-face teaching. I often can’t see the effect I’m having with my words. So when someone makes the effort to write me a note or leave a thoughtful comment, whether it’s about my blog or a short story, they allow me to see my work from a completely different perspective. They give a new meaning to the words I have shared with the world. And they inspire me to continue to write. Such is the power of the charming note.

I wonder who I’ll write to next.

 

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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I believe in paying attention to the small scale.

Mind you, I have nothing against big dreams and lofty goals. You want to revolutionize modern transportation? Please do. You want to become a regular on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera? Fantastic. You want to write the next big novel, or design the next big advance in computing, or find new treatments for cancer? I’ll be cheering you on.

You want to save the world? Well, sometimes aiming high gives you the room you need to accomplish something great.

But whether we have great ambitions or not, who we are, how we behave, what we communicate, and the choices we make on a day-to-day basis can also have real impact.

This has been particularly on my mind as I watch the impact that others have on me and my life. On two separate occasions recently, I’ve been engaged in casual conversation with someone who I don’t know very well, and they’ve said something that changed my outlook and deeply influenced decisions I have since made. I don’t think either one of them was making any particular effort to do so, but both of them said something that changed me and helped me to see more clearly.

Photo by Cristian Bernal

We never know when we might do the same, when we will share a thought or insight or ask a question and change someone’s life forever.

When I was in Toronto, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a police officer, and somehow we got into a conversation about attempted suicides. My friend told me he talked to one guy who jumped off a bridge and survived, who said that while he was on his way to the bridge, if a single person had stopped him and smiled at him and asked how he was doing, he wouldn’t have jumped. A single person. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

And haven’t we all experienced that? The email or phone call at the right time, a trip out for frozen yogurt, an invitation to spend the holidays. The teacher who taught us how to think critically or write the hell out of a thesis statement, or the person who believed in our potential even when we were struggling. The sharp kick to send us back in the right direction, delivered without judgement.

I think that’s one of the reasons I find writing this blog to be so valuable. I never know when something I write here might be exactly the thing one of you needed to read that day. But the possibility that I could help someone with these essays the way certain blog posts have helped me keeps me writing.

This week in the United States we spend time thinking about gratitude. I think of the people who have helped me become who I am today, the people who have given me knowledge, advice, and wisdom, the people who have listened to me and provided moral support, the people who have blown me away with their generosity, and it is easy to feel grateful. It is also easy to see how their actions, often small and seemingly insignificant, have taken on a greater meaning.

The small scale matters, and part of its nature is that we might never know how much it matters. We often don’t find out how our influence ripples outwards, what lives we affect, how those lives touch other lives, and what ends up being different because we exist. We don’t know when we’ll say something that makes all the difference.

Which is why I think it’s important to pay attention. Tomorrow might be the day you accidentally change, or even save, someone’s life without ever knowing it.

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As I type this, it is Sunday night in New York City. I am alone in my hotel room on the 33rd floor. And the hurricane is coming this way.

I have prepared as much as I am able. I have water, food, and little LED lights. I have considered the possibility of flying debris breaking the window. I have charged up my Kindle and my iPod. I have changed my flight and talked to hotel reservation clerks.

There is nothing else I can do. So today, taking advantage of the subway that is now no longer running, I visited the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums. I looked at Kandinsky (my favorite was Small Pleasures) and Monet and Renoir paintings. I saw three gorgeous Fabergé eggs. I talked to a man whose handshake was crushing and could reel off famous quotations the way I can sing musical theater songs.

Inside the Guggenheim today

This has been, in many ways, a year of high uncertainty for me. But this hurricane takes it up another notch, so that now I am uncertain about basics of my physical comfort: is the power going to go out? Will I be able to keep warm with no heat? Did I buy enough supplies? Can I keep myself from going insane in the dark? How long it will last, and when will I be able to leave?

I hate uncertainty. I’m a big planner. Uncertainty tends to make me deeply uncomfortable. So that means I’ve been growing a lot this year, and this hurricane is like a particularly swift kick in the pants to make sure I keep at it.

Here is what I’ve learned about uncertainty. Even though I don’t like it, I can sit with it. I can be kind to myself in the middle of it. I can try to keep myself fed and well-rested so I can deal with it better. Once in a while I can even embrace it and see the potential it represents.

Uncertainty also heightens my appreciation and gratitude for what I do have right now. For having a purpose in life as exciting and fabulous as writing. For the wonderful people with whom I get to spend time. For cute snuggly little dogs who burrow into my side. For warm clothes and cupcakes and beautiful art and performance art that pushes boundaries. For leaves that change color in the autumn. For courage and wisdom and curiosity and kindness and vulnerability. And for the open-hearted generosity that so many people have been showing me.

And you know what? I even feel grateful for being afraid to die. Because that means I have so very much to live for.

I’ll be in the heart of uncertainty for the next few days. I’m even uncertain as to whether there will be another blog post this week. But I hope there will be.

Do you have any thoughts about uncertainty? I’d love to hear them!

ETA Tuesday 12:30am: It appears that the worst of the storm is over where I am. I’m fine, I still have power, and none of the windows broke. Many thanks to all my fine friends who reached out to me while the storm raged.

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I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s most recent book, At Home, which I wanted for months and then received for Christmas (and even then, it took me another couple of months to get to it, which goes to show how out-of-control my to-read stack has gotten). Its subtitle is “A Short History of Private Life,” and its chapters are named by rooms of the house. Bill Bryson’s 19th century former rectory house, to be precise.

This is what my book looks like.

I thought the book was going to be full of anecdotes about each of the rooms: what activities were typically performed there, how those varied over time, how each would be furnished, etc. And there certainly is plenty of this information in there, but that’s only a beginning. With his typical charm, Bill Bryson supplies bucketfuls of mostly random (but still fascinating) facts that are often only tied to the room in question by the loosest of associations:

  • the building of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851
  • the usefulness of bats as a species and how many are now in danger of extinction because of rabies myths
  • the building of the Eiffel Tower and how it is constructed of iron, not steel
  • how ice became a commodity
  • how very dark it used to be at night, and various techniques of lighting

Although I like this cover art better!

My main take-away from the book is that it really sucked to live in the West after the Roman Empire and before the twentieth century. It was dark and painful and exhausting and dirty, full of back-breaking daily labor for almost everyone. People would get sick all the time, sometimes even from the chemicals they used in the wallpaper and paint on their walls, and there was no anesthetic. Rats and mice would scurry over your bed, especially if you were a child sleeping in a trundle bed. And if you didn’t want your loved one’s body stolen by grave robbers, you had to keep it in your house until it went bad and began producing maggots. Yuck.

As a woman, it sucked even more. You either had to perform repetitive back-breaking labor (like laundry, which also involved chemicals that made people sick) or, if you were lucky, you had to sit around and be bored out of your mind while preserving your delicate sensibilities. Thank goodness music and art were considered appropriate activities for woman, but heaven forbid you read a novel. You were considered property and in England, at least, it could be quite difficult to get a divorce. Beating was commonplace and no grounds for leaving; it merely showed you lacked sufficient patience. Doctors would often dismiss your medical complaints because you were a woman. And you’d probably end up dying in childbirth anyway.

I am even more grateful than usual to be living now, in an age of antibiotics, safer childbirth, labor-saving devices, electricity, and more opportunities for women. If I could choose any time period to live in, which would I pick? I’d pick NOW, thank you very much. I like having teeth and the right to vote.

In any case, it’s a great book and I recommend it. And now I have to ask: if you could choose any time period to live in, which would you pick?

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‘Tis the season to notice gratitude, and several of the blogs I read have been recently doing just that. John Scalzi started it off with his Thanksgiving Advent Calendar (the first post of which, incidentally, makes a nice companion piece to my own post on not drinking). My friend Marie Brennan decided to follow his lead and do a month-long thankfulness project as well (and by the by, also wrote this very Amy-approved post, if you’re looking for more reading). James Van Pelt chimed in with some gratitude of his ownjust yesterday.I’ve been really enjoying reading these posts. It’s so refreshing to get a little dose of positivity every day as these writers think about the various aspects of their lives that increase their quality of existence. After all, I’m never one to shy away from optimism, and one component of that is to appreciate what you already have. So here’s my list of random happy things in honor of Thanksgiving:1. A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables: Because in the past, you could usually only eat what was locally grown. Granted, I live in California, where many fruits and vegetables can be locally grown, but I’m still grateful for this.

2. Living in the United States: Okay, it’s true that the right of habeas corpus referenced in the Constitution seems to be on a permanent holiday, and apparently we’re not allowed to protest peacefully anymore either. But even though there are a lot of things I think need to be fixed, that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoy many benefits from living in the United States. My standard of living is higher than it would be in many, many other countries; I have access to useful infrastructure; and I don’t generally have to worry about my country being obliterated in the near future. These are benefits that I very much appreciate.

3. Corrective Vision Technology: Without any technological assistance, I am very, very nearsighted and couldn’t function normally in the world. Not only do I have access to glasses with light-weight lenses that don’t make me look at the world through Coke bottle glass, but if they break I can get them fixed locally and promptly. Plus, if I get sick of them, I can opt for contact lenses that aren’t painful like the old ones used to be or get corrective eye surgery. Yay for being able to see!

4. The Internet: My life would not be nearly as rich without the increased access the internet has given me, both to a wide variety of people and to a huge collection of data. When I was a kid, if I wanted to know something I’d look it up in our set of World Book encyclopedias and hope there was a relevant entry; if there wasn’t, I’d have to make a trip to the library or just settle for not knowing. Can you imagine settling for not knowing anymore? I can’t. And if you wanted to stay in touch with someone who didn’t live in your town, you wrote letters…which meant you couldn’t stay in touch with a very large number of people. Nowadays that’s gotten a lot easier.

5. My blog: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a lot to say. However, if you meet me in person, you might not realize this is true, because I have this ingrained habit of asking questions and listening…which means I don’t always get around to the saying what’s on my mind part. Getting to share what’s going on up there in my head with you all is a great privilege…and a significant pleasure.

6. My car: This one is a little embarrassing. I had to replace my car early this year, and I’ve been surprised at how much I appreciate the new one. Sometimes it’s the little things: I push the ignition button and it ACTUALLY STARTS. Every single time, even. Wow, do I feel grateful to not have to worry about getting from point A to point B anymore. (P.S. The seat warmers don’t hurt either.)

7. Libraries: Until the last few years, buying a book (and probably a Mass Market paperback, at that) was an extremely big deal for me. The rest of the time, I supported my reading habit by frequenting my local library. I can’t imagine what I would have done my whole life without libraries, and I’m incredibly grateful that I was given the means to live the kind of literary life that would have otherwise been outside of my grasp.

8. My family: I know I sound like a broken record, but my husband and my dog probably make the biggest difference in my life on a day-to-day level. They make the good days better and the bad days not quite as grim. Any list of happy things doesn’t feel quite complete without mentioning them.

Please tell me a few of your own happy appreciative things, or write your own post and make sure to tell me about it!

I hope you all have a very happy Thanksgiving! I’m taking next week off from blogging for the holiday, so I’ll see you again the week after next.

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Thank You

As this year draws to a close, I’d like to thank you, my wonderful readers, for allowing my words to live on in your minds.

I’d also like to thank all the wonderful new friends I have made this year: in particular, the friends that I’ve met through SCBWI (District 14, Asilomar, LA), through Taos Toolbox, and at World Fantasy.  You have made a huge positive difference in my life, and for that I am very grateful indeed.

May we meet again in 2011 and beyond.

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