Just look around; they’re everywhere
In my gratitude practice, here’s what I’ve noticed
Maybe “practice” is too lofty a term. I don’t claim any specialness when it comes to spiritual mojo or mental hygiene. I’ve simply developed a nightly habit: before I turn off my bedside lamp, I write down five things I’m grateful for.
Not four, not six: always five, and they can’t be repeats. No fair simply listing the names of my loved ones over and over.
The rule of five items is arbitrary, but the fixed number works for me. Sometimes it’s not nearly enough; other times, as fortunate as my life is, I have to crank my brain’s engine to come up with items four and five.
Those occasions are when my little gratitude journal has a pronounced stabilizing effect on my wobbly perspective.
It’s the ordinary things
Each night as I look back on the day, I find that some are real standouts: red-letter occasions when dreams come true in real life. My cup runneth over: my gratitude journal is too wee to contain such largesse. Other days are dire and difficult, and at such times I note whatever it is that got me through them.
But most days in my life, and I suspect yours, are ordinary. Just days, one after the other. Nothing to write home about. I stare at the blank lines in my journal, mind wandering, wishing I could just nestle down and go to sleep already.
Those are the days when I haven’t paid enough attention. If I had, I would have seen that any day plucked from my life, even the most quotidian, is studded with overlooked wonders.
For instance, the toaster
Slathered with butter and jam or a perfectly squished avocado and salt, a good slice of toast is as comforting and reliable as a worn pair of slippers. Whether you’re in a rush to get to work in the morning or you’re in need of some unchallenging ballast for a queasy stomach, toast is there for you. It’s the side to your omelet, the frame to your grilled cheese, the platform for your open-faced sando. All you need is a loaf of bread sitting around and a working toaster.
Consider, though, life before electric toasters. The only way to turn a slice of bread, or a crumpet, or an English muffin, into a heated, toothsome delight with perfectly crisped and carmelized sides was to spear it with a fork and hold it over a flame. No doubt the result was often charred rather than toasted, and the procedure must have been tiring to the arms and possibly blistering to the fingers. Besides, by the time you’d gotten a second or third slice done, the first one was cold.
You could throw a slice of bread into a pan, of course, but it required careful watching and judicious flipping: hardly the mindless act of sticking bread in a slot, depressing a button, and wandering off to pour another cup of coffee until the slice pops up, transformed.
This tedium went on for centuries, arguably millennia, until a Scotsman named Alan MacMasters came out with his “Eclipse Toaster” in 1893. Even that innovation toasted only one side of the bread at a time, which still obligated the user to monitor and flip.
Also, it was only marketed in England.
The first American patent for an electric toaster wasn’t filed until 1906. Seven years later the first “toaster that turns toast” arrived, and it wasn’t until 1921 that Charles Strite, a Minnesota mechanic, received the patent for an automatic pop-up toaster.
A bridal shower tradition was born
By 1929, pre-sliced bread had caught on, and toasters soon became a fixture in every well-appointed kitchen. They became so ubiquitous as wedding gifts that the prospect of receiving multiple toasters became a hackneyed joke. Today, with the commonplace of setting up housekeeping well before the nuptials, giving a couple a toaster is decidedly un-hip unless it appears on their gift registry.
Toasters, as daily miracles tend to be, are easily overlooked. But think of your morning without one. For that matter, the next time you’re stumbling into your kitchen on a bleak Monday morning, grumpy and pre-stressed by the week that is barreling at you, pause a moment.
Consider the wonders that surround you. Hot and cold running water. A stove you don’t have to feed with firewood. A device that keeps your food cold, some of it frozen if you wish, and that doesn’t even require you to stock it with blocks of ice. A microwave oven, that magically makes the molecules in your food dance, metamorphosing raw eggs into scrambled fluffiness and gooey batter into baked brownies, all without heating their containers!
And you didn’t even have to strike a match to light a kerosene lantern so you could find your way to your automatic coffee maker.
You’re still entitled to your bad mood
Perhaps you’re going through a perfectly wretched patch. Life is full of mishaps that can knock you off your trajectory. A deep loss, a professional setback, family drama, a bad diagnosis. Life isn’t all buttered toast and steaming lattes.
But even on the worst of days, and I’m old enough to have had some pretty lousy ones, I’ve found that looking for whatever hasn’t gone completely to hell is what sustains me and at least some of my sanity.
Even the most ordinary — especially the ordinary — grace notes in life, the car that still runs, the mail that still gets delivered, the local espresso drive-through that’s always open by 6AM — are like handholds and footholds in a cliff face. Look for them, and they’ll offer you a path. It won’t necessarily be an easy one, but it will eventually lead you upwards.
As for the dull days, the “meh” days, the days that are nothing special — I have those days too. But I have less of them the longer I live. I’ve come too far down this road not to know that I’m surrounded by marvels, whether or not I’ve taken the time to register them.
And I have a really great toaster.