With a familiar, faint scratching sound to its gliding, the gold nib of my old fountain pen reached the bottom of the last page, a string of black ink letters and words in its wake.
Seated on the floor, I closed the little book and set it on the white brick hearth next to the flickering candles. Filling the final page of the small journal felt somehow significant, though I couldn’t lay my finger on exactly why. Perhaps it was just the sense of a certain stage of my life now ending, and a very different passage looming directly ahead. Quietly I listened to the silence around me in the house, gazing out the wide windows at a dusky, periwinkle sky, and reflecting back to the point seven years ago when I first began my practice of keeping a gratitude journal.
At the Seattle airport, awaiting my departure to London, I sat with a longtime friend in a couple of cold chairs in a cavernous space at the bottom of the escalator near the British Airways ticket counter. I had just dropped off my little Italian Greyhound, Kona, at the British Airways cargo building and handed over the keys of our car, now for sale, to my friend. Luggage checked, passport and boarding pass in hand, I was still utterly distraught over the morning’s events.
Simba, our dear scruffy, orange and cream colored cat, was supposed to make the trip to England with us. A pile of paperwork, a string of veterinary exams, rabies vaccinations and blood work, EU microchips, a significant wad of money, and a lengthy home quarantine had paved the way for our pets’ clearance into the UK. Yet despite my precautions that morning, he had somehow managed to escape from the house and jump ship. It was a move that resulted, after hours of distressed searching through all his favorite haunts in the garden and neighbors’ property, in leaving him behind and driving with little Kona to Seattle to catch our flight.
“He’s made his choice,” my partner said on the phone from England, calling again to check on me and my dismayed search. “Now you need to get in the car and leave so you and the dog don’t both miss your flight. Simba will be alright. He’ll come home after you’re gone and the folks next door will take care of him.”
I knew my partner was correct. We lived next door to my father and stepmother, and the feline king of the garden would come sauntering home to an empty house, probably just after I drove away, and the folks would take him in. Still, I felt gutted over leaving my dear Simba Cat, and tears fell from my eyes for a good portion of the three-hour drive north.
Wise and oh-so-clever cat.
A new chapter of life was beginning, an aperture that I had mixed feelings about. I was thrilled that my partner had scored a well-paying job in London that allowed us to reside abroad, but felt less than keen on the prospect of living in the largest city in Europe. Totally unclear as to what I would do with my own life in England, I simply hoped it would be a grand adventure of the best sort. Yet mostly my body felt tight and constricted, my breath shallow. Heart closed.
At the airport, having said goodbye to little Kona in his crate at cargo, I sat with my high school friend. I felt anxious over the long, cold flight for a small, lean, nervous dog—none of the Greyhounds have much fat or fur—who was forbidden by airline policy from having a blanket or wearing any sort of jacket or doggie clothing to keep him warm. I’d abandoned or been abandoned by my cat. And I was headed off into the great, grey unknown where it was almost certainly raining.
“I was watching Oprah the other day,” shared my friend, trying to cheer me up, “and she was talking about the practice of having a ‘gratitude journal’. It’s basically a little book where you write down the things you’re grateful for.”
She went on to describe how, when things got tough, you could look through your record of all the things you’d decided to give thanks for. My old friend, currently navigating some rough water, was thinking of starting one herself. Despite my seeming good fortune at an opportunity to live abroad with my partner, I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful for much at the moment, but I filed her suggestion away in a dimly lit corner of my crowded mind.
Some months after arriving in London, going through a turbulent stretch of the adjustment process, browsing in a local Waterstones bookshop I picked up a small, blank, journal type book. I liked its ornate, old fashioned cover and narrow, red satin ribbon to mark one’s place in the pages. I was struggling on different levels, feeling deeply blue as I drifted through my days in Wimbledon, and decided that I would reframe my experience and begin focusing on gratitude. I purchased the little journal with some clunky English coins and brought it home.
On the Autumnal Solstice, an ancient day of thanksgiving, ‘The Feast of Ingathering’ as some neo-pagans call it, I officially started my gratitude journal, writing down things that I was truly appreciative and thankful for.
Then shortly afterwards, life went “arse over tits,” as the Brits say. Maybe in an odd way it finally went right side up, but whatever the case, the shit really hit the fan.
That rocky stretch of life in London marked the beginning of a simple but profound spiritual practice that I have since embraced on my journey through both good times and darkly challenging ones. It hasn’t been a daily routine by any means. Instead, the little gold rimmed book has rested upon my altar of soul objects and treasures, where every so often I pick it up, sit down somewhere quiet, and proceed to fill a page with a list of what (and whom) I’m currently most appreciative of and thankful for.
The gratitude journal is different from the little Moleskine sketchbook that I carry nearly everywhere in my bag, jotting down notes, thoughts, words and inspiration with my trusty fountain pen. I’ve a string of those small black notebooks stacked on a shelf, each stuffed with words that chronicle much of my widely roaming journey these past years. (For the record, the Moleskine sketchbooks have much better, heavier paper than their journals.) Sometimes I flip back through the pages, recalling memories of times and situations I have recorded.
When I pick up the gratitude journal, no matter my current state of mind or how heavy my heart, my mood never fails to brighten. Or my cheer and gratitude further increases.
Opening to a page at random, here’s one of my lists:
the gift of abundant light and warmth
the “Wedding Tree” still cascading in fragrant bloom
little fox in the garden at twilight
a rising, waxing moon
roses, poppies, and lavender in the garden
warm sunny days
the shade of green leafy trees
days spent on the terrace, doors of the house open
my orchids in bloom
a sense of tranquility and beauty
a long walk through the fields, woods and country lanes
owl in the oak, hooting outside my window at night
Now, after seven years, my little English gratitude book is full. Scanning the pages, I note key threads stitched over and over throughout, ones that bring a smile to my face. Surely these are the constants in my life, the very code and key to my soul—Nature, beauty, my beloved, handcrafted meals, friends and family, Wild Ones, music, books, poetry, laughter, handmade and artisan objects, rituals, mysterious grace, long walks, changing seasons and the continual gifts of earth.
As I begin a new journal for the journey ahead, I imagine that while the river’s course and tempo will shift, many of these same alluring gifts will continue to inspire me through my days. How could they not? I have consciously, deliberately built my life to include them. And I strive to pay attention as much as is humanly possible.
I’ve learned that gratitude is one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can embrace. It shifts our direction. It opens us. (And being open is one of the prime directives for a conscious life.) The gratitude journal is a deceptively simple but profound tool. In the midst of our daily drama and distractions, seeing our little journal sitting there, waiting, often provides the visual cue we need to stop and pause, to reframe our experience.
During times of hardship, it offers surprising support, helping to shift our reality from a narrow focus on troubles to a wider vista of appreciation. Honestly, why on earth would we only celebrate Thanksgiving one day of the year (and then mostly because it’s a holiday)?
If you read this Soul Artist Journal somewhat regularly, you know that I’m often urging readers to widen their senses, to pay attention. Wake up, I say. In that simple but radical act of offering the gift of our attention, we perceive the world in a different way. And effortlessly, we open the door to gratitude.
We dwell in a fully participatory and reciprocating universe. Soul Artists engage life with senses ajar, cultivating beauty, and celebrating the infinite little treasures for the soul that abound everywhere. They practice appreciation and offer their thanks to the world, both human and ‘other’. Whether in a journal or as part of their daily living, they are deeply appreciative for the uncountable, inestimable gifts that fill their days. The challenges, too. Gratitude is a spiritual practice and something more—it is the mark of an awakened soul in conscious relationship with the mystery of Source.
Just as when we reach out with the heart’s energetic field, when we reflect on our appreciation and thankfulness, a somatic response ensues. The breath shifts and deepens, shoulders soften and drop, the jaw relaxes, and the chest—and heart—opens. Our nervous system switches to a parasympathetic mode. Indeed, research shows that heart-centered feelings such as gratitude and love cause a positive shift in our heart’s rhythms and trigger a flood of physiological responses beneficial to health. Whenever our body relaxes and opens, we embrace possibility, and that, my friend, is part of our mission in life.
Dwell in possibility. And gratitude.
Gentle reader, I encourage you to find a small notebook—choose one that visually appeals to you—and dedicate it solely for the purpose of recording the things, people, situations and events, animals and non-humans, or anything that you feel grateful for. This nearly effortless little ritual reframes the picture of our daily experience, offering subtle nourishment to soul, spirit and heart. As the pages accumulate, you can also look back and trace the threads of support, grace, and gratitude that weave your days together in a shawl of silken beauty—one that perhaps you didn’t even realize you were wearing.
I ask, when you open your senses wide, what are you grateful for in this moment?
PS. As for King Simba, as predicted he returned home to an empty house and promptly moved in next door with my folks, where he demanded dinner, commandeered the bed, and reigned over home and garden for many years until he died at the ripe feline age of eighteen.