Category Archives: Gratitude

A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully

Marian

Marian

My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:


Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.

Love,
Marian


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”

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Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Friendship, Gratitude, Meaning, Relationships, Savoring

Self-Gratitude: Thank You to My Former Selves

I’ve been reading about gratitude again because that’s the topic of the second book in the Positive Psychology News Daily series. We’ve selected more than twenty articles. We’ve started editing. Kevin Gillespie has started drawing pictures. We’ll have it ready by Thanksgiving at the latest (cross fingers).

Earlier I posted my notes for the talk on gratitude that I gave to a Sunday School class at a local church. In particular, borrowing from some of the experts in the field, I wrote:

Cultivating Gratitude involves…

1) Acknowledging good things that happen – major and minor. Be mindful of present benefits; enhance the ability to remember positive events.

2) Recognizing the sources of goodness that are outside us. Much goodness happens to us independent of our own actions. What if we said, “Why me?” when good things happen to us?

But what if we also kept in mind gratitude that we owe our former selves?

Just to show what I mean, here are some of the things for which I can thank Kathie Sugg (baby name), Kathy Heninger (after adoption by step-father), Kathryn Heninger (chosen name at college), and even Kathryn Heninger Britton, looking back over the years.

Kathie holding Lou's ThumbI thank you, Kathie, for the picture of you holding your father’s thumb when you were tiny. That picture has created a strong sense of connection to my father who died when I was about 2 years old. It’s actually the only picture I have with both of us in it.

I thank you, Kathy, for your love of reading. You filled my head with stories of people I admire. These stories often return to me when I feel challenged. These stories remind me of duty cheerfully performed, of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of fear, of taking the long view, of the impact of love on life.

I thank you Kathie, Kathy, Kathryn for building friendships all along the way. I have close friends from early childhood, from high school, from college from graduate school, work, child rearing and graduate school again. Thank you for being so curious about people and for exchanging the words and deeds that made lasting bonds.

Learning how to snorkel

Learning how to snorkel

Thank you for the adventures you’ve had with friends — such as the trip to Bora Bora with friend Pam to stay on friend Sue’s catamaran, making new friends of Sue’s family.

 

I thank you, Kathryn, for always finding something to do with your life while you tried to figured out what you wanted to DO with your life. Yes, it took about 30 years for you to find a vocation that is also an avocation. But in the meantime, you gained experience with a lot of different people, different technologies, and different business considerations.

Thank you for taking care of my body, so that I enjoy good health now in spite of 30 years with Type 1 diabetes. I know it wasn’t easy.

More than 30 years together

I also thank you for finding Edward Britton to marry and then for building up more than 30 years of shared experience with him. I don’t think you understood that marriage at my age would be even more rewarding than it was at yours. Thank both our earlier selves for all the little acts of warmth and appreciation that must have added up to more than 5-to-1 one positivity ratio between us — but who’s counting?

Thank you, also, for deciding to have children, one of life’s greatest adventures.

And so on. Who would I be if it hadn’t been for you?

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Filed under Curiosity, Gratitude, Marriage

Reflections on Resilience

I have been away from my blog too long. First there were the holidays, which always eclipse everything else. Then I traveled out west to visit my mother and help out in those small ways that make things run smoother — getting ready for the conversion to digital TV, fixing the email connection, cleaning out a cupboard or two. Then I had the dual pleasure of visiting good friends in San Diego and having a press pass at the conference at Claremont Graduate University called Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society. Have no small goals! My summaries are posted on January 30 and 31 of Positive Psychology News Daily.

Resilience from Alaska Moms Photo Stream

Resilience from Alaska Mom's Photo Stream

Now that I’m back at my own desk looking out my own window at the bare trees in the woods, I’ve been thinking about resilience again. I got a call from a reporter who was exploring the question, Why aren’t people unhappier in this time of economic trouble? I did a little looking around, first finding an online resource, The Road to Resilience, published by the American Psychological Association and Discovery Channel in the wake of September 11.

Ann Masten wrote a paper about resilience being “ordinary magic” — when people’s adaptive abilities are in good working order, they can withstand hardship. At the Claremont conference, Chris Peterson and Nansook Park talked about hardship causing character strengths to be developed or discovered. And even though it was a long time ago, we haven’t totally lost our collective memory of coming out the other end of the Great Depression. From people who were children then, we can still learn about gratitude for the blessings of the intervening years.

I’ve written about ways to build resilience — a PPND article called Resilience in the Face of Adversity and a short paper about how to prepare for and deal with the emotional impact of layoffs — available from my resources page.

Perhaps status stress — keeping up with the Joneses — goes down because we all feel at risk. It is a shared adversity.

I also think we are fortunate to have leadership that is eloquently optimistic and that calls on us to participate in the recovery. My mother keeps feeling sorry for President Obama because of the difficulty of his job. But I think, that’s why he was elected, that’s probably even why he ran. Difficult times make openings for greatness.  That was certainly the case with Abraham Lincoln who had even bigger problems to address.

I’d love to hear your ideas.

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Filed under Gratitude, Resilience

My eternity list — another definition of happiness

Ghost Riders cover

Ghost Riders cover

I came across an intriguing way of thinking about happiness in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, Ghost Riders. (pp. 205-206).

A character is sitting with a friend on a mountain, the air is not too hot, the sky is cloudless, and the laurel is in bloom.  She says, “It’s so peaceful here.  I’d put this day on my eternity list.”

What’s an eternity list?  She explains it based on the theory from an [unidentified] English physicist who theorized that every moment in time lasts forever, that time may seem to flow, but it is actually separate nows, “each existing forever in its own dimension.”

So she speculates that maybe that’s what heaven is – “getting to live forever in one really wonderful moment.  So the more happy moments there are in your life, the better your chances of spending eternity in a good place.”

Resilience from Flickr

Resilience from Flickr

Of course there are many unhappy moments in anyone’s life.  As I wrote recently in my PPND article on resilience, adversity is part of the human condition.  But at any given moment, there are a range of possible responses, some with happier consequences than others.  Face the misery inherent in your life, yes, but don’t take on any more than necessary.  

I shall start thinking about saving up my own eternity list — moments of communion with family and friend(s), moments of deep engagement in writing or working out details or talking about things that fascinate me, moments of physical beauty or pleasure, moments of knowing that what I am doing matters.

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Filed under Contentment, Good with the Bad, Gratitude, Resilience, Savoring

Reading Science Out Loud

My husband and I have a new entertainment: I read out loud to him from books about scientific subjects that I’ve checked out of the public library. We do this at the ends of meals mostly — I have always eaten much faster than he does — in my opinion because I grew up one of many children and he was an only child. We joked that there were two ways to be at the table: quick or hungry. I haven’t been able to break that early habit.

So while he takes his time and tastes his food, I read out loud.

We started with Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin. I started reading it to myself and had so much fun with it that I kept reading him passages out loud. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read it all out loud. It was fascinating to explore the connections between our body plans and those of other species on both the paleontological and molecular biology fronts — for example, how our limbs are structured relative to those of late fish, amphibia, and other mammals (one bone, two bones, lots-a-bones, digits).

When we finished that book, I returned to the library to pick up books referenced by Your Inner Fish. I found 4, and my husband suggested we read them from earliest geotime forwards. Life on a Young PlanetWe just finished Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, an exploration of fossil remains in rocks going as far back as the Archaean Eon, as much as 3.5 billion years ago to the “earliest glimmers of life (maybe).” I hadn’t been aware that our planet didn’t always have so much oxygen available, that the chemistry of ocean water has changed repeatedly. Nor was I aware what an enormous part that microorganisms play in keeping the oxygen, carbon, and other cycles going. It’s a good lesson in humility for humans.

So why do I write about this oddball form of entertainment here?

First to celebrate that I married a man who has the strength Love of Learning as much or more than I do. We have such a good time talking about the ideas that are new to us. He has a much better grounding in science than I do, so he often gets to explain back to me what I just read.

Second to explore another downward comparison that makes me appreciate a much used skill. I did a lot of stumbling over names — I started saying “the AK group” instead of “Akademikerbreen Group,” for example. I also found some of the sentences a little hard to parse as I went along — I’d read a word as a noun, and then realize it was the verb and have to go back and reread the sentence. But for every sentence where I did that, there were 100’s that I was able to read and and speak as I went. Wow, what a complex skill I take for granted all the time! I don’t think these authors expected to be read out loud.

———-
Update:
We’ve finished several more books. The first 5 are listed below and the rest are in a later posting:


Time Travelers Wife
Michael Novacek, Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

Read a review in American Scientist.


Ian Tattersall, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE. Oxford University Press. 2008.

Here’s a link to a picture of Ian Tattersall and a short description of his research interests.

Carroll, Sean (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The new science of Evo Devo. New York: W. W. Norton.

This book was very stimulating and full of of explanatory pictures. The mechanisms of development are both complex and elegantly simple. The book brings together evidence from many fields – from fossils to fruit fly experiments.

Bainbridge, David (2008). Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A fantastic journey through your brain. Harvard University Press.

This book was great fun — history, science, and technology of understanding how the nervous system works from bottom of the spine to front of head. The zonules of Zinn are the little fibers attached to the lens of your eye that can be pulled on by tiny muscles to flatten the lens so that you can see the distance.

Carroll, Sean (2006). The making of the fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.

This is a very readable explanation of evolution as it can be read by looking at the DNA of various species. It discusses fossil genes (genes that have mutated into non-functional forms because the associated features give no advantage to the species), immortal genes (genes that are so crucial to life that mutated forms do not survive), toolkit genes, gene switches. It also explains the mathematics of evolution in terms of variation, selection, and time.

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Filed under Gratitude, Reading Aloud, Relationships, Strengths

Gratitude from Growing Up in the Depression Years

While I was out in Idaho, Jesse Posey gave me a sketch that he had written about growing up there during the depression years. It was a very interesting piece about habits of gratitude coming out of a hard beginning.

Since this piece has been published in a magazine (Jesse couldn’t remember where), I’m not going to include the whole thing here. If I do find the reference I’ll add it.

Downward comparisons can be very useful for enhancing gratitude. That means thinking about how things could be worse, or were worse, or are worse for someone else. Jesse’s gratitude comes partly from thinking of the hobos who showed him that having a home and enough food to give some away was something to be grateful for. It also comes from remembering being cold and working hard. According to the poet, Robert Pollock, “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.” These experiences from more than 70 years ago have cast a very long gratitude shadow.

Jesse and his mother

Jesse and his mother during the Depression

We came to Idaho from Tennessee in 1935 when I was 6 years old with hope of finding a better life. … All that we brought to Idaho with us was what we could cram into the car. It must have been so hard for mother to have to leave so many treasured things behind. 5 of us made the move, my mother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, and myself. Years later I asked my cousin if we camped out. He laughed and said, “No, we just drove and picknicked with a loaf of bread, bologna or cheese and crackers.”

We moved to Kimberly, Idaho that fall and into another one room house across from the railroad tracks. Being close to the tracks we had our share of hobo’s knocking on our door looking for a hand out or anything to eat. Though we had little I can remember that my mother always found something to share with them.
Our house was just a framed building with no insulation and the winters were really cold. I would walk along the tracks looking for coal that had fallen off of a coal car and sometimes a hobo would toss coal off.

Kimberly had a dance hall called “Shadowland” and several name bands played there. After a dance I would get up early the next morning and walk around the building and hunt for beer bottles which I could sell. Once in a while I would find some change or even a bill. I sold the Saturday Evening Post and the Grit magazines and mowed lawns with a really hard to push reel mower with a grass catcher. The money earned was turned over to my mother to help buy groceries.

We made our own entertainment by playing basketball, baseball or football when we could find a ball to use. … We also played what we called field hockey. We would use a Sego or Morning Milk can for the puck and what ever for the stick.

It was a hard life but I think it was a good time to be growing up. I’m sure it made us appreciate anything that we were able to obtain later in life.

Jesse and Anna Lou Posey today

Jesse and Anna Lou Posey today


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Filed under Gratitude, Stories

Savoring an early summer day

Savoring is a set of skills that can be learned in order to increase the positive emotion we experience in our day-to-day existences.

Psychologists Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff published a book last year on this subject:

Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience
Savoring book cover

According to them, savoring involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. In a way, it is a counterpart to coping with negative aspects of life. Savoring involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (p. 5).

Magnolia blossomWalking around my garden is a great opportunity to savor. There’s the lemony scent of magnolia blossoms. This year we had more than 15 blossoms in our tree — more than we’ve ever had before in the little tree we planted 20+ years ago. I guess trimming the trees around it to give it more sunlight made a big difference. I had so much fun these last few weeks finding and counting the buds and anticipating their beauty. Now I can luxuriate in their sweetness.

Swallowtail on MonardaMy husband has planted a butterfly garden complete with flowers that they like and large stones with hollows that collect tiny drinking places and give them spots to grow warm before they try to fly again. We also planted parsley with the hopes of attracting the parsley worms that turn into black swallowtail butterflies. Observing butterflies is a wonderful opportunity to savor. They arrive when they want to, flitter around, and then are gone. The best we can do is try to anticipate their needs. Unfortunately, our garden doesn’t have a great deal of sun, so it is hard for them to get warmed up to take flight. When we see them, we stop to look and marvel. We also bask in my husband’s forethought and efforts to make a small world to please them.

Green figsOur fig tree is starting to be full of green figs. Often when I look at the tree, I remember the cold snap in about 1985 that killed the tree to the ground. We mourned its loss, but our grief turned out to be premature. It has grown back taller than the house. The squirrels jump back and forth between the roof and the taller branches, and we can pick figs from the upper story windows. So looking at the tree is a source of thanksgiving, that what we thought was dead is now so alive.

Bryant and Veroff describe several savoring processes that regulate other positive experiences (p. 14), including

  • Marveling regulates awe.
  • Thanksgiving regulates gratitude.
  • Basking regulates pride.
  • Luxuriating regulates physical pleasure

These are all processes that can be practiced intentionally so that they become more common and habitual, increasing the positive experiences in our lives.

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Filed under Gratitude, Habits, Positive Interventions, Savoring