365 Thanksgiving: Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice

I began writing this blog ten years ago, almost to the day.

Then, as now, the inspiration was Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year.

I had just embarked on my doctoral program, and my life was full–a full-time job, full-time mothering, and, of course, full-time school. It was a good time to be grateful.

And then, as now, whenever I am grateful (whenever I am “full”), I reach for the pen.

That moment ten years ago marked a significant shift in my life. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but it did. It was the first time that I had used writing in such a public way–to make sense of my life, but also to express gratitude.

A colleague of mine had just lost his wife, and the entire department–faculty, students, staff–rallied around and brought him food and company and comfort.

I was grateful.

Grateful that he was not alone in this moment. Grateful that I could witness such an overwhelming expression of humanity. And grateful, most of all, that I could offer some small help.

So I wrote a blog. And posted it. Publicly.

Thanksgiving. My favorite time of year.


It got me thinking.

Should Thanksgiving be just a once-a-year kind of thing?

I mean the celebration, sure, once a year is enough. I don’t think I can stomach turkey much more than that. But thanksgiving as a state of mind? Surely, there’s room for more of that in the year!

I know that I am often grateful. But in a distracted, rushed kind of way. I rarely sit with my gratitude or give thanks in a deliberate, thoughtful manner. Yet when I do, I feel so peaceful, so connected.

So how do I do this? How do I make thanks-giving a daily, spiritual practice?

I posed this question at my women’s group meeting last weekend, and, as usual, they came through with some tried-and-trusted (but also some unique) ideas.

The Gratitude Journal:
I think we’ve all heard about this. Oprah made it famous many years ago when she described her own practice of writing 3-5 things she’s grateful for each day. You can even buy pretty, gratitude-specific journals at your local book store. I’ve seen some that give daily prompts for journaling, and one of the gals at the Meetup even brought in a journal with cute little stickers and papers you can get really creative with. So a gratitude journal is a good place to start.

And if you, like me, find thinking of 3-5 things to be grateful for a bit too many, just start with one. In fact, the research suggests that focusing your attention on just one thing for which you are grateful for and getting really specific about why you are grateful for it can be more effective for tapping into the mental and emotional benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. So ONE thing you’re grateful for each day. That’s good enough. (Oh, and P.S. – there’re also apps for that).

Phone it Forward:
If writing is not your jam, then there are other ways to express your gratitude. Once a day, pick up the phone and call someone to tell them that you are grateful for their friendship, for their presence in your life, perhaps for some small kindness they offered you the day before. And as with the journal, the more specific you can get, the better. I like this one a lot. I’m pretty rubbish at picking up the phone these days. All that dialing and looking up numbers and . . . actually, I’m lying; it doesn’t even occur to me to do so. In a weird way, my devices fool me into feeling connected, even though sometimes months pass before I physically speak to someone, even someones whom I love dearly. So this is a good one for me. It kills two birds with one stone–speak to someone I love directly and tell them how grateful I am. I like it!

A Can of Beans:
This is an unusual one. The thought here is that we move through life on autopilot–we drive to work, get our obligatory coffee, pound through our to-do list, and before we know it, it’s time to do it all over again. We have no time to be grateful. In fact, we have no consciousness that we are grateful. We are just going through the motions of our day automatically, through habit. The Can of Beans practice attempts to remedy that. Once a week, it says, open up a can of beans–any kind of beans–and without ceremony and without embellishment sit down to eat them for your dinner. Do not pour them out onto a plate or into a bowl. Do not season them with anything. Just stick a spoon into the can and eat. Be grateful. Be grateful that you have this can of beans for your dinner. Savor the taste, the texture. Remember what canned beans taste like. Be grateful. Be grateful for all the meals that have come before. That steak. That wine. Be grateful. Be grateful that you have this can of beans for your supper. There, but for the grace of God, go I.


Gratitude Letter:
Write a letter to someone in your life for whom you are grateful. Tell them why you are grateful, how they have brought joy into your life, how they have made your life better. Be specific. Tell stories. Remember.


My Dearest Mother,

Thank you for giving me life. It would have sucked balls if you didn’t. All those donuts uneaten, all those books unread. A shame.

I am writing this letter to you today because I did not write it before. Not once in all your 79 years on this earth. I cannot phone you or send you a can of beans, but this I can do. So here goes:

I am grateful that you gave me life, a great life! I wanted for nothing and grew up thinking I was rich. I am grateful for the abundance.

I am grateful that you raised me to be a tough sonofabitch. Because, God knows, we all need that this year with fires burning everywhere (both literally and politically)

I am grateful that you loved me whole-heartedly and without reservation. It gave me a good model for how I wanted to love my own children.

I am grateful that you raised me with an extended family. It gave me so many brothers and sisters to call “home.”

I am grateful that you chose my father. No father, no Me.

I am grateful that you were smart, but also hungry to learn. That might have been your sexiest feature.

I am grateful that you sang. With equal passion behind an ironing board as you did on stage.

I am grateful that you wrote books about my life and stuck pictures in them and memorabilia that I would have dumped in the trash had it been up to me.

I am grateful that I got to taste your cooking. Right up to the moment you left us for the heavens. I can only imagine how very very happy (and how very very fat) the angels must be!

I am grateful that you were gentle and kind. It helped me to spot my husband in a crowded room–Ah! There he is!

I am grateful that you taught my children how to grow plants from seeds and cotton wool. And how to eat corn, one row at a time.

I am grateful that you filled our home with books. How lonely my life would be without them.

I am grateful that you showed me that there is dignity in all work because no matter where I am and what I do, I know I can hold my head up high and always be with God.

I am grateful that you read me poems as a child. I can hear their hoof-beats pave my way.

I am grateful that you called. On my birthday. And celebrated it. Like a national holiday.

I am grateful that you never felt the need. To bend me. To your will or theirs.

I am grateful that you let me be, so I could figure out who I am . . .

And guess what?

Turns out, I’m a tough sonofabitch!

Who loves you very much.





 If you enjoyed reading this post and would like to get more like this delivered directly to your inbox Click Here

Categories: Reflections

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. I’ve always liked the idea of a gratitude journal, or list, because it trains the mind to see experiences in a different light. The practice can help one be a glass half-full instead of half empty type of person.
    The can of beans, uh, no. Too many of them in my childhood 🙂
    I enjoyed reading your letter to your mother. This made me think if I could write one. I’m thinking on that idea.

Leave a Comment