This is the stack of gratitude journals on my nightstand. I started this practice in 1999, while reading Simple Abundance by Sara Ban Breathnach. Her idea is to keep a journal by your bed so that you can record at least five things from that day for which you are grateful. It’s become an essential habit for me to close out each day and get myself in the right mindset for another run at living. Some people say prayers. I write in my gratitude journal.
The look of the journal is important to me—no spiral bounds, no garish colors or trendy prints. Silky ribbons are a plus. Sewn bindings are better than glued. I never spend more than $20 on a journal, but I would if the right one came along. I don’t stockpile, only buy a new one when the current one is almost full. The right journal has to look like that time in my life. The first journal I ever bought for this purpose (at a Books-a-Million, if that gives you some idea of how long ago this was!) had Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” on the cover and the instant I saw it, I knew it was the right one—a place for contemplation, quiet work, simple gifts.
My earliest journals fill the bottom drawer of the nightstand. I used to finish one and stow it away as soon as the new one was ready to use, but I haven’t moved a journal out of this stack since 2004. The slow-growing tower signifies the archaeological layers of my life.
Here’s something interesting I discovered when I went to Google and typed: “What do you call those layers of dirt that archaeologists see when they dig up things?” (I have my Google language set to Southern.) Mixed in with the strata of ordinary life, which leads to ordinary dirt-making, we find destruction layers:
A destruction layer is a stratum found in the excavation of an archaeological site showing evidence of the hiding and burial of valuables, the presence of widespread fire, mass murder, unburied corpses, loose weapons in public places, or other evidence of destruction, either by natural causes (for example earthquakes), or as a result of a military action.
Destruction layers are often found associated with a change in subsequent pottery styles or material culture artifacts, indicating an invasion by a foreign people or intrusive element.
So true. If I read back through my gratitude, scattered among the joy I find destruction layers (divorce, death, the 2000 presidential election), new pottery styles (IKEA sippy cups), changes in material culture artifacts (size XXL yoga pants) and perhaps even a few loose weapons in public places (ahem, this blog).
Why haven’t I moved these books to a drawer or a shelf? They come in handy as historical record. Like when I considered having natural childbirth with Carlos, but I flipped to the list I wrote on Vivi’s birth day and read “#1 Vivi is here and healthy and beautiful! #2 That epidural was NICE.” Or the time that the manager of the Red Cross asked me to give a motivational talk to her employees and I read to them from my gratitude journal entries from March 2005. I told them that those last few weeks of Richard’s life wouldn’t have been possible without the blood and platelets that they had collected, so even entries like “we sat down for dinner today” or “Richard hugged his Dad” took on deeper significance. Not a dry eye in the house at that staff meeting. One guy still remembers me when I see him at blood drives. I’m glad he knows what a difference his work makes. It can’t be easy sticking people with needles for a living.
That purple suede journal at the bottom of the stack? That one is from 2003-2004. I know there’s a handful of confetti from a New Year’s Eve party on Bermuda tucked inside the pages. There are hundreds of happy memories in that purple book, but I don’t open it. It’s from the six months that we set up house together. A Christmas tree in the picture window. Trips to Prague, Berlin and Maine. Learning to sail. Painting bathrooms, renting movies and Chinese buffets. I can’t bring myself to look at the things that made me happy in the Before Days.
I don’t look in the red journal that’s second from the bottom. That’s the one where I was harvesting little seeds of gratitude in the middle of the tornado. Thankful for things like kind nurses, white cell counts, days I got to walk outside and sushi Tuesdays in the hospital cafeteria. Even on the hardest days, I require myself to find five things that were gifts. I wrote 24 things in my gratitude list on the day Richard died. But I don’t need to go back and read them.
Another reason to keep a gratitude journal? It’s fun to go back years later and discover the kernel that turned into something great. Like all those naps that I relished in the fall of 2006? I was pregnant and didn’t know it! Or the day when I did know and I wrote “Every wish I’ve made on every birthday candle for the last few years just came true.” Or on May 31, 2006, when I was grateful for my daddy’s birthday, Mellow Mushroom Cosmic Karma pizza with my friend Jonathan, a copper core sauté pan, and a “wink” from an interesting Brasilian man.
That interesting Brasilian man is picking up our kids today so I have some time to write. You. Just. Never. Know.