When I first heard about gratitude journals, I was newly eighteen and homeless.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been homeless, but the experience can put a damper on the whole “let’s talk about what we’re all thankful for” thing. It didn’t help that I’d first heard about it in the context of a neighbor’s very overwhelming church, which had recommended each member of their congregation keep a journal where they thanked God for various things everyday. I was not interested in thanking God for anything, let alone designating one of my beloved, unused journals to the process. I could list all the things I was ungrateful for. I could fill up a journal in one day with that.
I wasn’t grateful that my mom had disowned me and kicked me out two months after my high school graduation. I wasn’t grateful that my dad and my sister were on two different continents at the time, so it was just me against my legal guardian in a foreign country. I wasn’t grateful that my best friend moved out of said country later that same week. I wasn’t grateful that most of my other friends had already left for college, something which clearly wasn’t going to happen for me.
I wasn’t grateful that I had to rely on high school acquaintances letting me sleep on their couches, staying with someone new every other night so I wasn’t too much of a burden on any one person. I wasn’t grateful that I often had to crash with my boyfriend and his mom, who was a hoarder, in a house so swollen with garbage and furniture and stuff that there was only a shoulder-width path cleared from the front door to the bedrooms and single bathroom, which was infested with spiders. I wasn’t grateful that my father, when he finally learned what my mother had done two weeks after the fact, responded only by emailing me a Mary Woodsworth poem with no context.
My sister did what she could from as far as she was, but I wasn’t willing to leave my life in Germany behind, and she couldn’t really afford the plane ticket. So her offer to live together back in the states was another thing I wasn’t grateful for.
This point in the conversation is usually when I try to mitigate my brief stint with homelessness. It wasn’t that bad, I reason, both with myself and others. I always had a roof over my head at the end of the night. I had a lot of friends, and my boyfriend. A lot of kind people were willing to help. I didn’t even lose my job!
While it’s true that I never ended up sleeping on a park bench or under an overpass, it was still a distinct feeling of helplessness and terror, never knowing where I was going to sleep that night. I was exceedingly lucky in the people I chose to spend my time with. And I was lucky to not have any bills to pay at that point in my life, beyond the cost of living day to day.
I became very good at not calling myself homeless — or, even worse, disowned. My closest friends knew my mother had kicked me out, but to everyone else I was simply enjoying the bright, sudden freedom of young adulthood. I was a “professional couch surfer,” and a “transient,” a “drifter,” a “free spirit.” I very much wanted people to see this as a lifestyle choice reminiscent of the hitchhiking beat poets, rather than something that had been dropped upon me. I elected to ignore the fact that many of the hitchhiking beat poets had been homeless, themselves.
Jack Kerouac, perhaps the most well known of the beat poets, was homeless, somewhat purposefully, for much of two decades. He spent this time traveling across North America, writing unsellable novels and sinking further into his various addictions. He relied on the kindness of strangers to carry him through this period of his life, yes, but also on the willingness of his girlfriend — and future wife’s — parents to step in when no one else would. Shortly after they paid his bail after he’d been arrested for helping a friend cover up a murder, Kerouac deserted their daughter and fled west. This strikes me as ungrateful, too.
Seven years later, I came across the gratitude journal again, while getting brunch with some friends I hadn’t seen in some time. They hadn’t known me when I was homeless. They met me after I’d pulled myself (mostly) together, and so they knew me only as I am now; relatively successful, relatively happy, relatively stable, with pages and pages of things to be grateful for.
“Maybe I should do that,” I said, not intending to follow through at all. Sometimes you just say things to keep the conversation going. Sometimes you see someone on their morning jog and you think “I should start doing that,” even though you know perfectly well that you hate jogging and you never wake up before noon if you can help it. So I said “Maybe I should start a gratitude journal,” even though what I was really thinking was “Maybe I should order another mimosa.”
“It’s super easy,” my friend said, with the specific enthusiasm that comes only from realizing you might be able to convince someone else to share your new hobby. “Just one page at the end of the day, where I write at least one thing that I’m grateful for. That way I end each day on a high note.”
“That is easy,” I agreed. “I could write ten things, probably. I really like my life right now.”
I actually said those words. I really like my life right now. For over a decade, I’d been convinced I would never be able to say those words and mean them. But I did. I do. One thing a day? I thought. Pshaw. Ten things. Twenty things! I’m gonna be the most grateful.
To be clear: gratitude isn’t really a competition that you can win at. Of course, that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.
“Not so fast,” my friend laughed. “The hard part’s the first page, because you have to think about the worst time in your life and list what you’re grateful for from back then.”
“Which worst time?” I asked. I had a lot of worst times in my life, and it had never occurred to me to try and rank them before. I didn’t have a hierarchy of worst life moments.
Everyone laughed. They didn’t know any of my worst times, so it was very funny. They assumed my worst times were probably like their worst times, which they had healed from and could now look back on with the wisdom of time. My worst times were scabs on the back of my shoulders, which I picked at when I was alone but never let anyone else see.
I took a few days to poke and prod at each scab carefully, trying to determine which was the worst. Was it the years my mother spent terrorizing me? Was it the morning she kicked me out — physically, gripping me by the hair — or the six months I spent homeless? Was it the year I fell into a deep manic depression and ran away to China — only to then smuggle myself back just before Christmas, licking my wounds?
These individual hurts had compounded into nearly a decade of festering pain and mental illness, until I could hardly separate the traumas from the high points of those years.
And there were high points! I finally decided I would simply write out what I was grateful for during each of those stages in my life, starting with the teen years, which had been riddled with abuse, but also with love from my sister and friends.
I was grateful that I had been able to live in and travel across Europe. I was grateful for my sister, who had always been my idol and confidante. I was grateful for my friends, who had been every inch as messy and annoying and dramatic as me, but were also loyal and funny and generous. I was grateful for the comprehensive public train system (America, take notes). I was grateful for my high school, which had been small and diverse enough that sitcom cliches like cliques and locker room bullying didn’t really happen.
Moving onto the months after I graduated, I was grateful for the many kind-hearted people who let me sleep on their couches and guest beds, including people I didn’t really know all that well and even my boss. I was grateful to still live in Europe, where healthcare wasn’t a primary concern and I was still able to affordably travel. I was grateful for the time away from my mother, during which I learned how to build and enforce boundaries, and she realized she wanted to fix our relationship. I was grateful most of all for my boyfriend at the time, who was more of a best friend than anything, and for his mother, who always allowed me into her home without question.
I started these lists with low balls: a pair of platform boots I loved so dearly that eventually the soles fell off; the concert tickets my friends pooled their money together to buy for my birthday; the trains, seriously, you don’t understand until you’ve ridden a German train; my (mom’s) dog, who was a giant bastard of a puppy but exceedingly loveable. But as I listed, I began to remember more and more things I was thankful for, leveling up in importance. Sometimes a bad day is like an avalanche; all it takes is one moment to get the landslide going. But sometimes good days are like that, too.
I was grateful for my first job, an incredibly relaxed shift at a liquor store without a single employee I didn’t like. I was grateful I got to be immersed in a different language for so many years, even though I retained hardly any of it. I was grateful for so many things, so many bright spots which had been overshadowed by the pain and the sadness I’d had to endure. If only I’d taken those moments as personally as I’d taken my suffering. If only I’d chosen to roll the good memories around in my mouth like a jawbreaker, instead of chipping my teeth on the bad.
When I graduated to listing gifts from my present life, of course, the first thing I wrote in bold blue ink: I am grateful I have my own home. It’s an apartment, in a building that is not particularly well-maintained, with creaky old radiators that don’t heat well in the winter and no air conditioning during the swollen, humid summers. But I’ve decorated the walls with street art bought during my various travels. I’ve filled the kitchen with my frankly alarming collection of mugs. I’ve taken over the bathroom cabinet with all of my lotions and hair products I never use. My name is on the lease, on the inside of our mailbox. I ordered a welcome mat that says “COME BACK WITH A WARRANT” and put it outside our front door. It’s tacky, but it’s mine, and I’m grateful for that too.
After one month of diligently writing in my gratitude journal — quickly scribbling an entry in the notes app on my phone if I am too tired to fetch the actual notebook, and then transcribing it the next day — I began actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout my day. I’d make mental notes; each time a baby smiled at me on the airplane, or I got to pet a dog, or a coworker bought my coffee, or my cat woke me up with her purring. All of these little things I now bookmark as I go, so by the time I’m winding down in my hotel room or my own bed, putting pen to paper, I don’t even have to try to think of something. All of those tiny good moments come bubbling up to the surface without thought. The gratitude has become muscle memory.
That’s not to say I’m always consumed by simple joys and thankfulness. I still struggle with cycles of negativity and depression. Those are things I will never be free from. These days, there is still so much suffering. And I have it better than so many others. It can be hard to find a silver lining through all the smoke. But that is always when it’s most important. If all you can see is the fire, you might lose hope in making it out alive. All it takes is one little bit of gratitude at the end of the day. It won’t make everything better. It won’t change your lifestyle completely. Healing and growth are lengthy processes, and often intertwined. They take work, and they are by no means linear. This is only a baby step down the long, winding path.
But wouldn’t it be nice to fall asleep smiling, knowing that even if the day was almost a complete wash, you at least have one thing to be happy about? Doesn’t that just sound so nice?
You don’t have to turn your gratitude into a competition like I did. You don’t even have to list as many things. Just one is enough. Yes, from those bad days too. I know it feels like there couldn’t possibly be anything worth gratitude at the bottom of the barrel. But in the end, you still had that barrel.
Is it your health? Is it your ability to read? Is it your favorite band, or chocolate, or movie? Is it your best friend, or pet, or family member? Is it the color yellow? Is it the meal you’re excited to try making for dinner? Is it the fact that you’re alive, right now, in spite of everything? You have the ability to try again, to fail better, to not fail at all, to put something into this world that no one else ever has or will. That seems like a pretty good start.