‘Observations’ Archive

Cultivating gratitude

Every moment is a chance to experience gratitude, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

I’m still learning this lesson, and I have to keep reminding myself. But in every moment — with every breath — there’s something to be grateful for. If you really can’t think of anything else to appreciate, be thankful for another breath. And another, and another.

I’ve always been a goal-setter. I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but like most people I made myself promises I could barely keep for the first day of the year, alone for 365 of them. Then I started setting yearly goals, and soon wised up and allowed myself the latitude to revisit those goals every quarter, every month — every day, even. It’s not that I don’t stick to my goals. In fact, many of them carry over year after year because they’re worthy goals. But you have to give yourself permission to refine, relax or replace those goals with something that works better.

Lately, the yearly practice I gravitate to the most is keeping a gratitude jar. All it takes is an empty jar, some notepaper and a pen, and the willingness to pause and write down something you’re grateful for. After seeing the idea on a friend’s Facebook page, I filled my first jar in 2015. I’ve been doing it ever since, and just dropped the first note of gratitude into the jar for 2018.

There’s something enormously satisfying about watching a jar fill up with your thankfulness over a year. The beauty of a gratitude jar is that you don’t have to write much. It’s just a scrap of paper. I don’t force myself to write every day, but I scribble something when the urge strikes me. Maybe I feel a surge of gratitude or appreciation. Or maybe something meaningful happens and I take a moment to note it, along with the date, and to feel thankful. There are also days when I feel like there’s nothing to be grateful for, and I make myself find something — anything — to appreciate. It doesn’t ever take me long to come up with something.

The sight of the jar filling up reminds me to feel grateful, and motivates me to find more reasons to make that jar overflow (remember: I’m goal-oriented). Then at the end of each year, I go through all the slips of paper one by one, reliving the year’s moments of gratitude — jumbled and out of order, but almost more meaningful that way because those moments add up to a whole that isn’t bound by time and space. Sure, the notes evolve as my life does, but with hindsight it’s the sum total that really resonates with me. The many little reasons for gratitude really add up.

In talking with others who practice gratitude regularly — or who want to — one central concept is consistent: Taking a moment to experience gratitude cultivates more gratitude. The more grateful you feel, the more reasons you’ll find to be grateful.

I know it’s unlikely that I’ll be consistent enough to drop a note in my gratitude jar every day this year. After all, I have decades worth of journals with only the first few pages filled in before they were abandoned. But maybe this year I’ll try adding one note to the jar each day. Because the days when feeling grateful seems impossible are the days when gratitude is needed the most.

Creative diversions yield fresh inspiration

I’m fortunate that I get to be creative for a living. Whether I’m writing, strategizing or executing an idea, my work demands creativity.

assassinslineupv2But even the most creative among us needs fresh inspiration from time to time, and I found it by pursuing an avocation I’d set aside for six years: theatre. I just finished nearly three months of rehearsal and three weekends of performances as Sara Jane Moore in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. I’ve already written about what the show means to me, but now I find myself reflecting on the experience of the production itself and how it’s seeped into the rest of my creative life.

As anyone who knows the music of Stephen Sondheim will understand, preparing and performing the show was a challenge — one that I welcomed. One reason I’m such a devotee of Sondheim’s music is the puzzles he constructs. I revel in sorting them out and finding the solutions that reveal the magic of what he’s created. Making sense of the character and the show’s structure were equally stimulating exercises, and ultimately rewarding ones. Sondheim consistently reminds me how important it is to be intentional about what we create. Everything for a reason.

But what I gained from this experience is about more than simply flexing creative muscles I haven’t used in a while. For me, being onstage requires a leap of faith and a willingness to bare my soul. It means taking risks and being brave about them, putting myself out there in a way that daily life doesn’t necessarily require — but perhaps it should.

Some of my favorite directors have taught me that a good performance is about being in the moment, one moment at a time, and being present with your fellow actors with every breath and every line of music or dialogue. While the mechanics of stage business matter, the ideal is to let all of that become second nature so you can maintain your focus on the moment you’re in, with the people you’re in it with. The sensation of “waking up” onstage to realize you’ve been fully immersed in the moment is indescribable and enormously satisfying.

The same thing is true about everyday life, and the interactions we have with people. If we’re not being present with others — if we’re not being open to the leaps of faith life requires or the courage that’s needed to face challenges head-on — there’s a good chance we could miss out on something. When it comes to creativity, we almost certainly won’t be open to taking the kinds of risks that can spark compelling new ideas.

I almost didn’t audition for Assassins. I thought I was too busy, that I needed to focus on my work, that I had been away from theatre too long to jump back in. But that would have been a terrible mistake. Because as I reflect on the experience of being part of the production, I feel more inspired than ever about my work and my life. I feel motivated to be more daring, more open, more collaborative. I’m inspired to continue stretching my creativity in new directions, even when I’m sitting at my computer.

Perhaps it’s the insight that comes from stepping outside yourself for a few hours a day to become someone else, or maybe it’s simply the jolt of energy that comes from a new experience. Whatever it is, I’ll take it and run with it. My creativity — and the work I produce as a result — will be all the better for it.

[Photo credit: Bryan Clifford, courtesy of Avon Players. I’m at left in the image, in the brunette wig.]

Inspiration, made in Detroit

All over the world, people are predicting Detroit’s imminent demise. But they don’t get it, because they aren’t here to see for themselves how much good is happening in the city. They just don’t know what we’re made of.

TEDxDetroit2A day spent at TEDxDetroit, hearing the stories of innovators, entrepreneurs and visionaries — from established business leaders to high school students just getting started — gave me a much-needed jolt of inspiration. Even more important, it was a welcome reminder of all the great things happening all over Detroit, where people are determined to rebuild the city. It’s already happening.

The hope is unmistakable.

I wrote about my experience at TEDxDetroit for Eclectablog. You can read all about it below.

TEDxDetroit puts positive stories about Detroit in the spotlight.

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