Gratitude and a neighbor


by Settle Monroe

Her smile grows slowly, almost creeping its way to fullness as she remembers her life many years ago.  She leans across the table, as if to let me in on a secret, recounting the days of juggling her job as an English professor at N.C. State University with mothering her two young children.  At age 83, Marilyn Brandt, my next-door neighbor and friend, is living what she calls her “third act.”  She spends most of her time enjoying the slow, peaceful rhythm of this act’s unfolding.  And she nearly shines while speaking of days in the past.

In the four years that I have lived next door to Marilyn, I have gathered pieces of her story through conversations held over brown paper bags carried in from the car and mounds of leaves raked high in the front yard.  But to hear the whole of it, listening to how each chapter links to the next and discovering themes woven throughout, is like uncovering a work of art.  Marilyn has walked through the valleys carved out by the death of her young daughter to bone cancer and the recent passing of her husband.  She has stood on mountaintops formed by joys like a long, fulfilling career and a deeply committed marriage.  As she reflects on the mountains and the valleys, she also remembers and embraces a million little moments in between that kept her walking, that she held as gifts along the way. And now, looking back on all that life has handed her, she is noticeably settled and at peace.  Marilyn’s regrets are few and her contentment is great.  What is it that has grounded my friend, that has given her such a genuine acceptance of all the brutal and beautiful events of her long life?  She answers my question with three simple words: “I am thankful.”

So much of our time simmers in preparation and waiting.  The big beginnings and endings mark the years.  But in between the grand events, many tiny moments fill the space. Marilyn now holds these moments, the seemingly mundane and common, as treasure.  It is for the memories cloaked in ordinary that she gives thanks.  The dark nights by the campfire playing solitaire after her children were tucked in their sleeping bags, the evening meals shared with her husband at the kitchen table, and even the satisfaction of fixing an old, broken clock.  It is all joy to her now.

As I listen to Marilyn recount how the most precious and treasured memories of her life are the small moments peppered in between the big events, a simple thought grows in my mind.  Could it be that while we wait, while we stand with bated breath for the arrival, the event, or the accomplishment, that precious moments pass unnoticed?  While we want the big and the noteworthy, perhaps we are often given the small and the daily.  These gifts may seem to be brushed with beige paint, but maybe beneath the bland are flecks of gold begging to be mined.  It is when we hold them as treasure, when we cup them as fragile, that we remember to give thanks.

But in order to remember, we must first see.  Often we are simply too busy to notice all of the gifts.  It isn’t gratitude that fills our thoughts.  No, for there are lists to be made, calendars to be filled, and things to get done.  All of the hustle erases the traces of thanks.  The hurry masks those ordinary gifts waiting to be unwrapped in the now, with worry about the next thing ahead.  And millions of moments waiting to be touched and seen, full of potential joy, slip right between our fingers while we clench the wheel at ten and two.

But what is the cure to all the hurry? What is powerful enough to drag our heels and ultimately pull us to a stop?  What is it that can raise our eyes and lure us to notice?  Whether the days bleed together into one long snooze or speed by like one big smear, ultimately gratitude wakes and slows us.  It is thanksgiving that gives us eyes to find gold.

Sitting with Marilyn in her home office filled with photographs, scrapbooks and even schoolwork from her days at Fred Olds Elementary, I see that her deep gratitude has yielded a profound joy.  Brené Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “I never talk about gratitude and joy separately.  In 12 years, I’ve never interviewed a single person who would describe their lives as joyful, who would describe themselves as joyous, who was not actively practicing gratitude.” Joy grows from roots of gratitude.  Fullness lives in the space of gratefulness.  True contentment spills out of a cup overflowing with thanksgiving.

When practicing gratitude, I find gifts all around me: the morning sun shooting through the smudgy glass of my bedroom window, the bliss of my chocolate lab scratching his back in the fallen leaves of our backyard, how my 3-year-old chops his little feet and jumps out of his seat when he spies me at preschool.  I see treasure waiting to be found: the long yawn and early morning lip smacks of my 5-year-old waking up for school, the quick snap of my husband’s kiss on top of my head before he darts out the door, the braiding of lanky pine trees high above on my afternoon walk.  I can hear myself in Marilyn’s voice.  “I am thankful.”

I see in Marilyn the fruits of a thankful life.  I hear her story, unique and universal, full of grief and blessing, and I sense the deep gratitude that is woven throughout every chapter.  I witness how giving thanks, not only for the major events but also for the little moments, has woven together a life of fullness and joy.  I have learned from my dear neighbor that real joy is never out of reach.  It is never dependent on the next big thing.  Joy is simply waiting to be found in the thanks given for all of our ordinary gifts.