by Chelsea Jones

Every summer, I spend the month of July with my family in the Northern Michigan town where I grew up. It’s an amazing place, never too hot, always cool enough for a campfire at night, with clear, fresh-water beaches at every turn. With young kids and a loving husband, I soak up the family time and am grateful for every second. That I experience so much happiness in this place is a little surprising, because as a child, it wasn’t always fantastic.

As it does with many people, divorce and sadness defined much of my childhood. The difficult times hit their peak right as I was preparing to be a teenager. Survival skills are amazing: Confused, lonely, and unappreciated, I quickly learned how to escape. With so many options available and parents distracted by their own drama, I escaped through “interesting” friendships, work (yes, back then you could work at age 12), and in the end, running.

One day, after a particularly intense argument, I walked out of our house and down the sidewalk. I remember simply wanting to be far away from there. Without really thinking about it, I began to jog. In that moment, I realized that I alone had control over my legs. The feeling was so empowering because I had lost control over all else in my life. I distinctly remember the rhythm of my breath and the sound of my shoes striking the concrete: in-hale, ex-hale (two beats per breath). Pretty soon, my breath, and my arms, and my legs, and my heart were supporting me like a cradle. I felt at peace, and couldn’t have cared less about what was happening at home. I had me…In the way a parent says, “I’ve got you,” I had me.

In that meditative moment, I received the gift of gratitude. I instantly understood that finding a way to be fully present would allow me to see that I already had all that I needed. There would be no more suffering for me. In that moment, I learned that to fully experience gratitude, I would have to become whole-heartedly present, in a place where I could forgive and love.

The experience changed my life forever: All of that heartache was really the greatest gift. What I was given was a pathway to be present and observe the larger situation – a true understanding of what it takes to feel and express gratitude.

Gratitude is not simply being thankful for what others or the world have given you. It is a state of living joyfully because you see life through the lens of gratitude, and want to serve others. We can learn to breathe through change, conflict and disorder, rather than battle through it. We can learn to see every twist, turn and roadblock as an opportunity to grow and be the change we wish to see in the world. We can honor the difficulties of our past because they’ve carved out who we are today.

When you feel so fortunate to have the ability to live here and now, when you know that you can bring yourself to a place of peace at any moment, no matter where you are or what you lack, you want for nothing. What is left is to be present, and see what others need. What is left is to do one’s best, and seek out how to best serve others.

I’ve learned how to be present, not just around the holiday table, but every day. I’ve committed to love the flaws, to love the hiccups, to love the grouches, to love the laundry, to love the flat tires, to love the sour milk…it’s so much more about how I react and what I give than it is about what I get. What I’ve learned is ultimately simple: To be present in my life, and thankful for it all.

So, when I board that plane to head back to Michigan for my summer vacation, I am both excited and humbled.  I am delighted to share the beautiful place that I will always call home, but I must also make a conscious effort to view the difficulties that I experienced there as valuable lessons that sculpted who I am today.  With gratitude, I’ve grown to not only understand, but to value, my past and to see that my present and future are perfect for me.