Learning Gratitude


When I was a child it seemed that gratitude was something I was expected to display. I learned to mimic the desired behaviour, but I didn’t really understand gratitude or being thankful. I understood pleasure, and being glad that something had happened, or that I had received something, but the feeling I now associate with gratitude, a sense of heart-opening warmth and grace, wasn’t part of it.

My mother asked us to write thank you notes for presents within two weeks of receiving them. Sooner was better. So we wrote to distant Aunts and Uncles thanking them for presents that we weren’t sure we wanted: socks, handkerchiefs, soap. While faraway family appreciated the effort, the notes were bland and formulaic. Thank you for X. I like it very much. I hope you are enjoying (season or holiday), XXOOXX. As a teenager I moved to simple declarations: Great! Wow! Awesome! These exclamations were added to greeting card notes with some sentiment already printed. I faked gratitude in order to meet a social need.

When I began to work I was surprised by how much a thoughtful thank you from my boss or a co-worker influenced how I felt. I began to appreciate small kindnesses. The person who remembers to tell you where everyone is going for lunch. The person who remembers the type of pen you like when they order supplies. The person who helps you empty waste baskets on Friday afternoon so you can leave earlier for a date.

“Thank you” began to be a more genuine, more personal response, but understanding didn’t begin to develop until my early twenties.

Things that helped me learn gratitude:

  • Having little money

When I was on my own and unemployed for the first time in my early twenties I had very little money once I paid rent. Food was the highlight of the day and I enjoyed my meagre meals far more than I had when I never worried about when my next one might appear. I am not suggesting lack of money is good, just noting the way it increased my awareness and appreciation of food.

  • David Mekelburg’s Lettering and Layout Class, the camera square exercise

David’s class at Immaculate Heart College changed the way I looked at everything. The exercise that taught me the most asked us to take a cardboard square about 10 x 10 and cut a one inch square in the centre of it using an exacto knife. The first time we used it we went to a tire store with the assignment, “come back with a list of 100 beautiful things.” We found something we responded to and then examined it through our one inch lens. We also made collages using the square to see parts of pictures and lettering layouts. Revelation! So much beauty right in front of us that had been overlooked, dismissed, unappreciated.

  • Learning to cook

I’d been given a Joy of Cooking when first married and it helped me through those first traumatic meals, but I didn’t become a cook until I my brother and his wife gave me Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook over a decade later. The exuberant dishes were easy, delicious comfort food, and brought the author’s love for her ingredients into my kitchen. I began to cook with what what was fresh, local and available and I began to thank my food and the farmers who grew it.

  • Being a stranger

When I left Vancouver for the Okanagan in B.C. ‘s Interior, I only knew two people there: my boyfriend and my best friend’s best friend from high school. The generosity and welcome of my friend’s friend was like heat in winter. It provided the warmth needed for life to take hold in a new environment.

This book introduced me to keeping a journal. The author realized she had everything in her life to make her happy yet was more often discontented. What was going on? She began to look for moments when she felt happy and wrote them down. The simplicity of the question appealed to me and I began to write about when I was happy. Doing this helped me find out more about who I really was; this turned out to be quite different from both who I thought I was and who I thought I should be. It also made me appreciate when I was happy and what seemed to cause being in that state. Often I was happy because I read something wonderful or because I’d had a chance to appreciate some natural aspect of the day, or I’d had an engaging conversation. Gratitude for those moments of happiness began to arise. Gratitude started to show up without being called.

  • Suggesting books

I love books and love sharing them. I find myself suggesting a book and learning more about it in the process. When I’ve had a good experience with a book, I want to pass that along, and find myself thanking the writer for my own pleasure and for producing something that it is a pleasure to share.

  • Meditation Practice

When I began to practice the hardest thing to do was simply sit on my cushion. Again and again I’d catch myself straining to reach the next moment, the next breath; missing the present moment, present breath. When I could just sit on the cushion the world began to open, one breath at a time. I began to be thankful for each breath and marvel at the recurring wonder of it. From that place of gratitude, my experience of the world began to change.

  • Friends

Through meditation a deeper appreciation of friendship developed and a new way of thinking about it. When I was young my family moved frequently so I had attended ten schools by the time I entered high school. I developed some friendships that survived some of the moves, but learned to be happy reading and playing on my own except for school lunch times when it seemed critical to be part of a group. My earliest definition of friendship was tied to reading (those who liked books I liked) and solidarity (people willing to eat lunch or play with me). I was grateful to find them. There was a hint of desperation in my gratitude though and it wasn’t until I encountered meditation many years later that my definition of friendship evolved.

In Buddhist practice I learned about the spiritual friend, the Kalyāṇa-mita, the one that shares ethical values and supports practice as a way to attain enlightenment. Later, from John O’Donohue, I learned about the Anam Cara, an Irish term meaning soul friend. The sense of blessing that comes from relationship with a soul friend has enlarged my heart and gratitude.

  • Family

As a child and young woman I was more aware of what I felt was missing from my family.  It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, after therapy and years of meditation practice, that I began to appreciate my family. I finished grieving what I missed and began to realize what was there. As my child’s eye view of my parents dissolved I marveled at what they had been able to accomplish and all they had sacrificed to be able to give us what they did. I woke up to my good fortune in being born in North America to a mother and a father who wanted children, loved them, loved each other, believed in education, believed their children could be what they wanted to be, and taught them that each person is accountable for his or her actions. Gratitude for their faith in me abides.

  • Teachers

I had a remarkable group of teachers in high school. The faculty who taught senior students, led by John Sage, put together an honors seminar and introduced us to multidisciplinary perspectives and many of the skills we would need for college work. The use of questions, research into primary sources, dialogue in a seminar setting, and work to hone both our listening and reading skills were presented at just the right time. It was challenging, exciting, thrilling learning, and set the bar extremely high for other academic experience.

At Immaculate Heart College I encountered a group of passionate teachers at a time of great change. The faculty had just moved from being a small catholic women’s college to one informed by the values of Vatican II. In the process they had become co-educational, open and adventurous. To give you a sense of the rich dialogue on campus Dorothy D. Lee taught Cultural Anthropology, Tom Hayden, Political Science, Carl Rodgers, Psychology and Corita Kent was the Chair of the Art Department for many years. I took David Mekelburg’s Lettering and Design course there. This poem by Sr. Helen Kelley, who was President of Immaculate Heart, may give you a sense of the call that infused classes regardless of the subject.

Choose Life

only that and always,

and at whatever risk.

To let life leak out,

to let it wear away by the mere passage of time,

to withhold giving it and spreading it,

is to choose nothing.

Sister Helen Kelley

I was at Immaculate Heart for two years. The generosity and spirit of the college gave me my first taste of joyous gratitude. It also opened me to learning from another kind of teacher. Teachers who teach what can’t be learned from a book or a lecture. Teachers who are the lesson.

Gratitude flows like a river fed by many streams when I reflect on my teachers. I hope to celebrate more of them in a future post.

Gratitude is an ongoing practice. Reflecting on what you are grateful for and how you have learned to be grateful moistens the heart.

Join the discussion: How have you learned gratitude?


Celebrating Connection

My first Christmas in Canada, in 1971, happened during a two-week residential Gestalt Workshop at Cowichan Farm in Duncan on Vancouver Island. It was different than any Christmas I’d ever experienced.

In some ways my memories are a bit hazy; I am not sure I can still name every person who was there, but I have a very strong sense of how it felt to be sitting around the farmhouse table, candles flickering, and listening intently as each person in the small group took his or her turn to give their gifts to the rest of us. By this time we’d been on retreat together for a week, so we knew more about each other than we may have known about members of our family.

Each one of us had the opportunity to give each other person one gift. It wasn’t a physical gift. We gave a gift that embodied our recognition of the talents and resources, the habits of being; the longings as they had been revealed in our work together. We prefaced each statement with, “If I could, I would give you ….”

The joy that came from seeing someone smile, their face alight with pleasure, on receiving a fantasy gift that recognized them, was heart-opening. My sense of anticipation each time it was my turn to receive a gift was high, as high as the anticipation I felt as a six-year old, waiting until it was time to get up and see if Santa had brought me the doll I asked for.

The gifts we gave each other felt very real; some were funny, some deep. Being seen, having my longing met, filled me up.

I’ve always enjoyed giving gifts. That year I realized that it was the sense of seeing something special about someone and finding something that could celebrate that special thing, that I found so engaging about giving gifts. It is an opportunity to answer something in them.

Being seen, being heard, knowing that our lives are witnessed and respected, knowing by this that we are connected, is a precious gift. Reflect on the qualities that connect you to family and friends, and then discover the perfect fantasy gift, the one that will let them know that you see and value their special quality, and value their presence in your life–or just tell them what you love and appreciate about their presence in your life.

Join the conversation: What engages you about gift giving? What is the most memorable gift you’ve ever given? Received?

Astonishment and Joy

When I think of Thanksgiving I think of Mary Oliver’s phrase,

your one wild and precious life

and how life itself is grace, and how being present to your life and the wild and unpredictable colors and feelings it offers you moment by moment is a great adventure far beyond what we have or what we do.

When I first began reflecting on what I was grateful for I made a list; this list was often full of people and things I loved or experiences I loved having. Over the years I became aware of the joy in simply being; being there to make the list, being there with the possibilities of the moment, being there and thus being connected to so many people and so much else.

I am astonished by how much a moment can deliver if I am only present, and astonished that it’s there whenever I manage to show up regardless of what is happening in that moment.

If you are gathering for a Thanksgiving Celebration tomorrow, here is another Mary Oliver poem:

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


A Thanksgiving Wish

May the day bring you a quiet moment, may you dive below the list of things you are grateful for and go deeper; feel the warmth of your heart and the quiet light it shines on your life; receive the abundance and possibility that rises from the centre of your being. May you experience the grace of your life, and  may sharing moments of astonishment and joy be a part of your Thanksgiving.

 Join the conversation: What astonishes you and brings you joy? What are you thankful for?



Who do you thank?

Thanksgiving is Monday October 8th here in Canada. Have you ever sat down for Thanksgiving Dinner and felt disconnected? There’s the traditional litany of those to thank and what to thank them for: food, peace, freedom, family and friends, health, success, all worthy of appreciation and our gratitude should we be fortunate enough to have them, particularly in a world where so many lack them. I’ve sometimes felt ashamed and ill at ease at the Thanksgiving table when I just couldn’t connect to a feeling of gratitude. If existence itself is grace, then the bounty piled before me shouldn’t result in me wishing I was alone with a pizza and a good movie.

Discover what you are grateful for

Elsewhere war, famine, pestilence, and disaster thrive. Somehow the more aware I am of how badly off much of the world is, the harder I find it to open to receiving, to acknowledge what I already have. I find myself asking what I can do to reconnect with the spirit of thanksgiving.

“I made cranberry sauce, and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they’d slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries.”

― Elizabeth Berg, Open House

The dream that is the inspiration for the novel I am working on was a dream of thanksgiving. In the dream a young woman, is intoxicated by the sense of interdependence and abundance she found in meditating deeply on the bread and corn, squash and fruit that were part of her harvest festival. This gives her a sense of the connection between the people who planted the seed for the grain that became the bread, the baker who fashioned the loaf, and the dairyman whose cows provided the milk to make the butter for the bread and her life. The joy that came from her recognition of interdependence is a memory that brings me back to thankfulness, to connection, when I’ve forgotten who to thank and what I am grateful for.

Starting with my current feeling of restlessness and discomfort, because that’s where I am, I settle into my breath, into the present moment, and reflect on thanksgiving, and on the dream’s gift.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh

Reconnecting to your bounty

Good news! Gratitude is a practice that starts with simple actions.

  • Say “Thank You”

Whether you are saying it to your body, to the rose that offers its bloom, to your family, to the author of your favourite book, or the cook who prepared the thanksgiving feast, expressing your thanks changes what’s going on.

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”

― Meister Eckhart

  • Open to what you have and concentrate on what is positive and present in your life

By acknowledging and appreciating what we have we cultivate a sense of abundance and grow closer to realizing that existence itself is grace. Don’t forget to include your strengths and your experiences in what you have.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

― Epicurus

  •  Remember the people in your life

Kindness, compassion and support can come from family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances or strangers.

 At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

― Albert Schweitzer

Join the conversation: What awakens thanksgiving in you? What traditions and rituals help you keep that holiday alive?


Celebrating Help


I ask people who come to programs, how did you get here? I know I’ve arrived at this point because of all the encouragement and support that’s come my way. I’ve done the work, yet it has been the encouragement and support that’s allowed me to sustain the work. I am grateful for all the family, teachers, friends, other writers and bloggers, and artists in my life. This is a celebration of their work and an appreciation of what they offer.

It is a short list, focused on the website, so it leaves out more people and resources than it includes, but when you have lots to acknowledge you have to start somewhere!

Family and friends have shown their support and belief in me in so many ways over many years. You may not remember the countless times that you affirmed my dream or asked how the writing was going, or introduced me to the work of someone you love, but I thank you for each question, each acknowledgement, each connection, each time you recognized the “quiet light” in my heart.

Atum O’Kane: I took Atum’s two-year Art of Spiritual Guidance course at Hollyhock on Cortes Island from 2007-2009. It came at the perfect time for me, just as I was getting ready to make the transition from being a Regional HR Manager at Capers to some unknown other work. The practice and work in the course helped me move toward my soul work. I went on to study The Alchemy of Transformation from 2009 to 2011 and am now taking Archetypal Dimensions of Spiritual Guidance which began last year and will finish in 2013. I am profoundly grateful for the way work with Atum continues to nourish me spiritually and creatively.


John O’Donohue: The first book I read of John’s was To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. I go back to the book over and over again to use the blessings, and to study the essays about blessing. His work continues to lead me deeper into the mystery, and has been a blessing in my life.


Julia Cameron: When I finally started actually doing Morning Pages (see The Artist’s Way) it changed my creative life. I had kept a journal off and on for decades; the switch to faithfully writing three pages every morning helped me to turn on a tap that had been rusted almost closed.


Danielle LaPorte: Danielle’s writing and videos ignited a spark of urgency and booted me toward greater transparency. I ordered the digital program Your Big Beautiful Book Plan that she co-created with Linda Sivertsen and her Firestarter Sessions and found them both full of inspiration and help. I love the way she writes and talks; lots of great information, lots of soul, lots of straight talk, and a fabulous smile.


Roger Housden: Roger brought me back to poetry. Because of Roger I went to John Fox’s workshop last year. Because of the gift of Dancing With Joy, Roger’s anthology of 99 poems, I read poets I hadn’t read before like Billy Collins, William Stafford, Stanley Kunitz, and Jane Hirshfield and began to investigate more poets. It inspired me to reread poets I love like Mary Oliver, Wendell Barry, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Hafiz, Denise Levertov, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. His essays on poems in the Ten Poems series of books helped me read poems in a new way. Poetry is incredibly nourishing.


Robin McKinley: The first book I read was Beauty; from there I went to The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, and on to all the others. I reread Blue Sword and Hero regularly. I am not alone. Her blog is well followed and there’s lots of conversation on her forum. I want to celebrate her characters and heroic fantasy and her way of being herself on her blog, Days in the Life. Reading the blog nearly every day (remarkably she posts every day) she gives me a closer to reality vision of the writing life and this has been incredibly encouraging.


Jennifer Parker: I found Jenny by falling in love with a font, tracking the font to the designer, Stephen W. Rapp, and then finding the Jennifer Parker Designs website as an example of one of his fonts in use. I kept going back to her website, drawn by her designs and her art (look at the personal altars), and finally contacted her about designs for this website. She was wonderful to work with and I am delighted with the results (my logo, and logo art for dream, discover, explore, create, and celebrate). There’s something wonderful about the way long distance collaboration works and about the power of visual images.


Robert Ouimet: Helpful, easy to work with, knowledgeable, intuitive, and a good teacher, Robert has made the process of getting my first site up and this redesign done workable and creative. I love the feeling that Robert’s got my back; that there is a real person to hold my virtual hand, if needed.


Union Photographers: Holly took photos of me and made it fun. Her laugh is so good, you want to do what you can to have it happen again; fortunately this isn’t hard and you get great candid photos.


Join the conversation: These are some of the folks who helped me get here. Who do you want to celebrate for helping you?


Leafy Splendor

PA210141Last week when the late afternoon sun and a breeze turned the leaves, wearing their last burst of intense colour, into drifting magic, Aimee and I went for a walk.  One of the things about keeping company with a dog is knowing that you will be outside at least four or five times that day, so even if you get engrossed in your work,  your friend’s not going to let you forget that the world is there. This day we escaped for a longer walk. As I watched her investigate a section of leaf-covered lawn with intense interest, her nose touching the leaves and rooting for the grass underneath, the demands of the day fell away. We stood together on a carpet of gold and red leaves with the wind shaking more down around us. It was quiet, except for the breeze rustling the leaves, and the distant bark of another dog. Nothing to do but breathe, and swim in colour.

Summer in the City

aimeeToday I had an early morning leadership training session for a client, so woke at 5:00 AM, about two hours before I am usually ready to give up sleeping. It was still dark, and hard to get moving until the light began to show. Aimee the West Highland Terrier and I emerged for her morning walk about 6:00.

The day was still cool, fresh and still. While Aimee sniffed the air I watched the early shift at VGH park their cars and head toward the hospital. Some strode purposefully along while others strolled and stopped to smile at Aimee. A woman came by with golf clubs slung over her shoulder and waited on the corner for her golfing buddy to come by and pick her up. A woman in black running shorts and a red tank jogged by, her hair pulled back from her face in a pony tail that bounced with each step; she gave us a quick smile then focused on the distance.

There was a kind of camaraderie on the street; it was a lovely morning and we were all up to enjoy it before most of the city.  There was more activity at this early hour than when I usually took Aimee for her walk a bit later.  On fine summer days in the city, the early morning is the time to enjoy before the sizzle of the day’s events and temperature take over.

Three Reasons Why Beauty Means Business

shell1. Beauty lifts the spirit.
Whether you bring your service or product directly to the consumer or deal business to business, what helps you create a business environment that gives your customer an experience that lifts the spirit has never been more important. The more the world focuses on cutting costs, cutting back, and celebrating doom and gloom, the greater the need for beauty and for an emotional connection.

2. Beauty makes the ordinary an experience.
Beauty can turn a chore into an experience that we want to have again. Beauty, whether created through design or through nature, draws people to it. When something you have to do, becomes something you enjoy, you’re likely to come back. When we see something we find beautiful, our heart opens and there’s a pause, even if only for a moment.

3.  Beauty is memorable.
Aside from our desire to purchase beautiful things, we remember beauty, and it becomes a point of difference. Whether it’s the difference between Apple’s standout design and a slew of ordinary PC laptops, or the community garden spots at the centre of traffic roundabouts, and a concrete circle without plants, beauty refreshes us, and the memory lingers.