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Acknowledging Gratitude in a World of Pain

Dear Friends,

With active violence near us in Lewiston and across the globe, I had a tough time mustering much gratitude ahead of Thanksgiving. We're all feeling so much pain. But I also felt thankful for:

  • an intimate and humbling conversation over dinner with four new friends,

  • bike rides and walks around this beautiful city with its arching skies and winter-blued waters,

  • an impromptu conversation with a shopkeeper on India Street planting bulbs for March blooms,

  • the ready smiles and hellos from nearly everyone on our streets be they housed or unhoused, rich or poor.

Amidst so much violence and pain, there is also so much joy.

One of our hardest tasks as humans is to hold two very different emotions, each valid, in our hearts and minds at one time. It's so regularly what we're called to do in any deep suffering.

One week before the publication of Poetic License in 2020, after six months of severe back pain, and just as we entered Covid, I was scheduled for disc surgery. I didn't know if I could survive another single day of searing, relentless pain that made it impossible to do anything. That afternoon I forced myself to walk fifty steps out our driveway at a moment when the intense western sun was setting, spotlighting a lone wild turkey. Like dozens I would see regularly, that shaft of light spotlit the turkey's feathers in a way I'd never seen before— turning it into a painting full of gold, umber, amber, and ochre, as if it were an ostrich. For several minutes, my pain was gone. Such is the gift of real presence in the face of beauty and joy.

Wednesday last week, while cutting vegetables and preparing food for extended family, I reached for a podcast to entertain me...and,

you know how sometimes you read just book or listen just the music that perfectly matches what you need in that moment?

That morning it was Katie Couric in conversation with Kelly Corrigan and David Brooks. It was only the second time I'd listened to her podcast Next Question and it was exactly what I needed in my state of anguish over so much hatred in the world mixed with so much joy in anticipation of family arrivals.

Here's why it was perfect:

1) Brooks reminded us of James Baldwin's beautiful lines: "There's not as much humanity in the world as one would like but there's more than you think. There's enough."

This prompt that got me thinking about my gratitudes listed above and if Baldwin could write those words in the midst of racism of prior decades, then I'd need to find my "enough."

I thought immediately of the legion of first responders, physicians, nurses, police, and Lewiston citizens who rushed to help during the disaster.

2) Couric, Corrigan, and Brooks had a warm and friendly repartee (this was recorded before 10/7) which made me smile and laugh and feel a lot more human.

As Brooks said: "We can be diminishers or illuminators, and it's our choice." Which made me think I'm not sure we can truly be illuminators in the world without regularly uplifting the joy of others and ourselves.

3): To that point, when Brooks' marriage broke off a few years ago, he was faced with choosing between these and found the strength to look himself in the mirror, recognized what he (and others) didn't particularly like about him, and start a journey of profound personal transformation. His interest, in particular, was to move from having the empathy of a "cabbage," as he put it, to upgrade his empathy skills in order to share his caring for people more deeply.

Which brings me to:

4): Many of you know that I spent 35 years in my consulting career working with powerful men in exactly the same place. Having received constructive feedback from a partner, employees, a team member, an advisor, they looked themselves in the mirror and decided it was time for them to grow, if there was any hope of their companies really growing. And through a lot of work, they changed, becoming better listeners, more empathetic, more democratic, plain nicer.

What particularly struck me in listening to David Brooks was that here was another white man in his professional prime who was doing the same. My most powerful moments with my clients were the ones when they expressed their greatest vulnerabilities, fears, and known weaknesses, while committing themselves to change.

And in this moment in our world, as men continue to hold the power over wars, community violence, and hatred (not to dismiss those women who do as well), we should care deeply about their personal transformations and our collective responsibility for holding them accountable. Men still rule most corporations, they largely are the ones who wage war, and those who carry AK-47s. As Brooks acknowledged that most women have more natural empathy and ability to genuinely connect with fellow humans, it's never too late for us all to hold mirrors in front of those who could do more.


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More Gratitudes from My Stack

Death Valley book cover

Melissa Broder

Death Valley

If you're a hiker, a lover of the wilderness, or just a person who loves reading about women on adventures, this novel is for you! I LOVED IT! The protagonist is experiencing anticipatory grief over the likely and impending loss of her father who is in hospice care in Los Angeles. Needing a break, she takes off for a few days in my favorite national park Death Valley. This is an almost entirely interior and somewhat speculative novel while full of fantastic side characters such as the two desk clerks at her Best Western. And her wilderness adventure in the desert is one of the best I've read. Come for her quest and stay for Broder's fabulous writing, both hilarious and tragic. Like I said, I LOVED IT!

New People book cover

Danzy Senna

New People

I'm just so grateful for the fabulous contemporary women writers who I often highlight here as I work through constructing the outline for my first novel. Danzy Senna's New People is so imaginative and well structured, I was in awe. Her writing is often about people who are Black but can pass for white, that is lighter skinned Blacks born to mixed race parents or whose genetic makeup simply makes them such. Maria and Khalil, college sweethearts, now in their thirties, have landed a role in a documentary about the "new people" moving into Brooklyn "at the end of the 20th century". They fit the demographic profile the film maker wants. But with a good life seemingly laid out in front of Maria (good job, good education, nice house in Brooklyn), she finds herself fantasizing about a poet, which quickly turns into a fixation. No spoilers here but as Maria confronts her own racial identity and the secrets in her past, I was swept right in. Great read.


One last note from David Brooks was his story of a woman with a brain injury that sometimes caused her to suddenly fall to the floor. The most frequent response she'd get was that every person wanted to DO something—rush to her aid, worry over her, call 911—when what she needed was for someone to get down on the floor with her and wait for her brain to right itself.

As we each make our way through the holidays, in whatever ways we do, may we collectively be illuminators, may we support personal and systemic growth and change, and may we get down on the floor with those who need just.

As Brooks says, "life still expects things from us."

In memory, thanks, and action,

Gretchen signature


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