The Challenge of Exercising Gratitude

I think about gratitude a lot. I recently read an article that highlighted the importance of distinguishing it from the act of appreciation. Intrigued, I did a little research and came to better understand that appreciation is what you feel for the good in people or things, whereas gratitude is experienced when you realize good is experienced beyond the obvious. I was delighted to discover that the latin root of gratitude is sometimes translated “grace”. If there is an ‘awe’ to grace, then it would follow that the same would accompany gratitude.

I don’t recall feeling very appreciative when The Dale became homeless. I did however feel a deep gratitude for so many things about it: the community that was willing to teach me about transience; the hospitality we experienced from others; the freedom from belongings; the discovery that we were a living, breathing “church” without four walls. During those early days I regularly found myself in awe and wonder that I was witness to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

These truths are knocking around my heart as I think about The Dale today. We’ve been looking for a new location to house our Wednesday morning breakfast and art-making Drop-In. It isn’t easy to re-locate and we’ve been feeling admittedly anxious about it. The good news is that Parkdale Community Health Centre has opened its doors to us, eager to deepen the partnership we’ve been developing for years. I got this news the same day First Baptist Church agreed to let us use their building for administrative work and meetings. I am appreciative AND grateful.

As is so often the case, good is accompanied by difficult. During the same phone call with the Health Centre about space, we needed to discuss the death of another community member, Andrew Kri. As hard as his death is, I love that we knew Andrew and can now remember his life in all of its complexity. At the same time I am aware that as our losses accumulate it is difficult to process them, especially when there is so little space between each. As I was recently discussing with a friend, it does seem that we can only truly grieve when we have also delighted in life. Gratitude is somehow suspended in the tension of joy and sorrow.

I suspect that as we learn to appreciate the many pleasing things around us, a sense of gratitude will be cultivated, one that says, in all things, I will give thanks. Looking past the obvious, sifting through our pain and acknowledging that life remains a gift is not easy. Gratitude, as Martin Luther argued, is a “disposition of the soul”, a virtue that can be exercised and strengthened. Gratitude reminds us that grace is real and invites us to stand in awe.



Hold On

Part of my way through grief (through most things really) is to write. It helps me to sort out my thoughts and sometimes enables me to take a step back and see a situation differently. Since my mother’s death I have been thinking a lot about her ability to be kind and patient despite her extremely difficult circumstances. Hospital staff have shared about how much they loved her, always amazed at the way she found a way to smile even on the days when there was seemingly little to smile about. Though she rarely complained, my mom was far from being a pushover. If she had a concern, she dealt with it directly and often in writing. She would occasionally remind me that it took her a long time to learn how to speak up, but once she did she couldn’t look back. Sometimes she’d smile and jokingly say, “Erinn, I’ve become SO bossy”. I would laugh and tell her that bossy was the last word I would ever use to describe her.

I used to think that because my mom was strikingly calm, nothing scared her. Just as I came to realize how her ability to speak up was learned, I have grown to understand that she became very adept at acknowledging her fear and choosing to move forward despite it. Even the most terrifying of storms did not uproot her deep faith. I have been routinely listening to one of her favourite songs, one that I have referenced briefly before. Some of the lyrics are: “In a million miles you never thought you’d be here, standing at the peak. Even so your heart feels heavy, and your spirit is weak. And if you should forget that love is all you need: Hold on, if you need to hold on, you can hold on to me.” In her darkest moments (and there were many), mom actively chose to hold on.

In holding on, she also discovered how to reach out. Mom understood the power of community and did whatever she could to engage in it, even when she was forced to do so from a hospital room. She highly valued her family and friends. In fact, being able to enjoy everyone was one of her biggest priorities and informed many of her choices around healthcare. She relished long visits, the kind where every bit of news was shared and time was not tracked. Connection to people helped to sustain her, while the love of God always carried her.

My mom would never claim that she had it all figured out and I suspect she would balk at the idea that I might even dare suggest it. That’s not why I write all of this. I write, in part, because it gives me a chance to articulate my gratitude for her. When I am standing at my own peak, teetering on the edge with a heavy heart and very weak spirit, I think of her. She clung to her faith and was resolute in her hope, all while maintaining her sense of humour. During times of loneliness she found the courage to ask for help. She refused to be defined as a “sufferer”, while not sweeping the reality of her suffering under the carpet.

As I reflect on all of this, I am struck by how much I desire to be like her. She has left behind a LOT of lessons. I long to carry myself in a similar fashion to my mom. I want to: speak up and only jokingly seem “bossy”; acknowledge fear and keep moving; prioritize community; and in all circumstances, hold on.


Living in the Now: Choosing a Hope that Fuels Patience

Nearly every day I turn to a series of readings and prayers in both the morning and evening. This particular rhythm has only become a habit over the last year. As I walk through the valley of grief, I am relieved that this practice has produced muscle memory, the kind that instinctively takes over. And so, on those days when I don’t know what to do with myself, I at least begin and end with good words.

I recently read, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves”. I have so many questions, many of which are the kind I suspect won’t be answered in my lifetime. I wonder what it looks like to accept the things I cannot control and to develop the wisdom to know what I can change. I looked up patience in the dictionary and found this definition: “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”. Oh, how I long to grow the dimensions of this attribute in my heart.

One of the things I have learned a great deal about in the last number of years is being present to the moment. I began to discover that my tendency toward people pleasing and perfectionism (as though that is even possible) was deeply flawed and rooted in terrible insecurity. My worth it turns out cannot be tied to a job or a person or a skill, it comes entirely from God. This work-in-progress heart change has better equipped me to pay attention to what is right in front of me. I cannot change the past, nor can I live in the future. Instead, I must live in the now.

‘The now’ is a jumble of challenge that requires a significant amount of patience. The grief over the death of my mom is a good example: I must be present to the pain of this significant loss and endeavour to tolerate the suffering without lashing out or giving up. Not too long ago my daughter described me to other people as an optimist. Though I don’t always feel like one, I was relieved that she could identify me as that. What I want her to know is that even in my grief, I hold onto hope.

One of the things I pray each day is: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm. May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you. May He bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors”. In this time of uncertainty, I choose to fuel patience with hope, and to live with the questions. I trust that with time understanding will come.


Reintegration, One Step at a Time

I didn’t go to work last week. After the tumultuous time that was saying goodbye to my mother, making all the necessary arrangements following her death alongside my brother, and finally holding a funeral, I knew I was going to collapse. The crash began after we’d returned home from the cemetery. In the early evening I sat on my bed and went into what I think was shock: my teeth began to chatter and my body began to shake. I remember lying down and crying, and then I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew it was 2 o’clock in the morning.

Since then I have fluctuated between being shockingly calm (though it might be more appropriate to call it ‘in denial’) and totally wrecked. The grief hits me in dramatic waves. I have never been one to hide my feelings, so when the wave comes I try to go with it, even if it takes my breath away. The sadness makes me tired. Which is probably why my brain sometimes shuts down and allows me to feel like everything must be okay: surely I will be able to visit my mom once she has recuperated from this latest crisis. I know it’s not true, but my heart wants it to be.

My days have been filled with reminding myself to eat, napping, crafting, drawing, and a whole lot of wandering. I have talked with my counsellor and seen my massage therapist. We have eaten meals made by friends. Cate and I got a manicure together. On Saturday I ventured out to a birthday party for a six-year old friend. I have appreciated the string of nice days, grateful for the warmth of the sun and the comfortable breeze. Memories continue to flood in. Others tell me it isn’t true, but my face feels permanently stained with tears.

I am now beginning my reintegration to more regular life. I am going to take it slow, but my sense is that it will be helpful to have other things to focus on. One of my obvious coping mechanisms is cleaning (while everything might be out of my control, I can make a sink shine), and there are plenty of opportunities for it in the coming weeks at work and home. I was at the Dale Sunday service yesterday for the first time in a couple of weeks. The community gently gathered around me, offering me peace, prayer and refreshingly, not a single platitude. They loved my mom from afar and prayed for her without fail, every single week. I know they will be a part of helping me through this transition.

I keep describing this grief as a complicated one. My mom struggled for many, many years while maintaining deep hope that one day she would experience new life and a redeemed body. Picturing her finally eating food again around a magnificent banqueting table makes me smile. I am grateful that she is free. And I miss her. Life without her is not the same. Which is why reintegrating seems scary and strange, though I know she would be the first person to encourage me back to work. I can hear her reminding me of my call, and saying, “I love you sweetie. You can do this”. Well, I’m going to try.