In 1996, the book Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach started a habit of gratitude. Its companion book, The Journal of Gratitude, encouraged me (and millions) to record and appreciate the little things in life. Over time, I learned that even when you have a bad day, you can still be happy over stuff like not having a stone in your shoe, owning a toothbrush, indoor plumbing, your bus driver’s smile, or salt. These things are practically free and totally taken for granted in the world — at least our neck of it.
If you don’t flex this gratitude muscle daily, you lose it. Thanksgiving is a good time to remind ourselves how good we have it here in America, this place we call home.
It’s easy to forget to appreciate the very things that would make another human weep with gratitude.
I got to thinking about abundance as I walked around the East Austin Studio Tour last weekend, staggering through room after room of art; easily accessible and served up to a motley crew of hipsters, hippies, and arty people who’ve seen plenty of it. (You can tell.) Not that that’s a bad thing.
Fact is, you start to overload on visuals after an hour or two.
The Canopy in east Austin is set up like a school, narrow hallways in a two-storied square with rooms off the hallway on each side. Incidentally, there’s no right or wrong way to roam an exhibit this large. Part of the fun is watching people. Some people observe art with caution. Guided by some inner criteria, they peek inside and decide whether to enter. That’s not my style. I’d rather get in there and breathe it in, rather than sniff the air from the doorway. Besides, I needed an art fix. Determined to experience each and every studio, I moved briskly.
In some studios, I was in and out with a head bob. Some I entered, and slowed way down. Some were exciting, so I circled a few times around. In some, I looked but found myself folding my arms in protection, or reservation. The hallway was base camp. I regrouped and checked my time, focusing on my goal to “not miss anything.”
I realized I was getting a little tipsy on art when I started rubbing my eyes, scanning rooms for something fresh to lure me over. Something to aim toward and hang onto. (I’m a cheap art date, it turns out.) More isn’t always more, as I’ll explain in a minute.
One space in particular caught my eye, probably because it looked like nothing in particular. It just felt different. An entreating, soulful-eyed girl stood by. This exhibit looked like a home from my past.
Yes, home. Not my home, but one I spent a lot of time in 25 years ago.
My boyfriend at the time used to laugh about Shannon’s and Mike’s college apartment, which had dead things (ok, plants) hanging on the walls, in the curtains, and even from the ceiling. Mike worked at a florist shop and had access to spent, if not dead, flowers. He was loath to throw out any unwanted arrangement, so he hung the flowers on the walls, preserved mainly by non-movement. If you brushed up against one, it would crumble, or shrink from it’s its tieback and drop. Dried-out. Gone.
I looked twice because it reminded me of the apartment. And the hanging flowers – turns out they have a story behind them…. a memory of home. Here’s how the artist Jennifer described it:
The flower represents the victims and peacekeepers in Mexico who are suffering from violence and unrest. The noose represents the violence. The two together will form an upcoming exhibit to bring awareness to the nightmare that is Mexico for peace loving people.
The exhibit “The Scream of the Flowers” (“El Grito de las Flores”), visually documents the death toll (120,000 people) and the 27,000 missing or kidnapped people in Mexico.
It’s staggering, the numbers of people just…gone.
Mexico has a serious problem that too many people – especially those closest to it – are afraid to confront. It makes more sense to flee, whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur. (I would, too.)
Last month I talked with a Mexican native businessman who recently moved to Austin with his family to establish Linguistica, a Spanish immersion school in Bee Cave. As he described his desire to move his family somewhere safer, I was struck by his comment that Austin felt “similar to the community where [he] grew up.”
Now his home in Mexico is no longer that same place due to the violence. It’s “home,” but you can’t live there. It looks like the same old neighborhood, except people occasionally disappear.
What does home feel like?
In the public discussion about immigration this past month, I didn’t hear too much about the feeling of “home.” The concept is not important, politically, of course, and yet “HOME” informs humanity’s most prosperous civilizations, and our bloodiest wars. On a personal level, one’s home provides a rich source for gratitude.
(And, by the way, home is a place where people don’t get snatched away.)
In contrast, Austin is a safe city. Safe to start a business, safe to work, safe to express yourself in art, and as Jennifer says, “to inspire people to be brave and challenge their abilities to make a big change…. to engage as a community and fight for a difference.”
She said, “I feel people want change, they just need an outlet to express themselves.”
And, like the founders of the Spanish school, she settled in Austin, TX. Good choice.
I look around the planet, and my little spot in it, and feel like I won the freakin’ lottery. What’s not to be thankful for?
Back to the gratitude journal. About a year after I began jotting down three things I was thankful for every day, I stopped. The journal did it’s job. Gratitude became a habit, most days. In fact, there’s almost too much to be grateful for. It’s embarrassing.
For example, my home town that has gobs of art and music. I have the leisure time to enjoy a day of studio exhibits, shops and restaurants. I can go to the gym daily, to stay healthy, because if I didn’t push myself away from my 27-in computer screen every now and then, I’d be unfit to climb the stairs in my house. I live in a community so prosperous we re-grade and re-pave our roads every few years, just for giggles. (No, wait, there’s a new $53.7M middle school in the neighborhood; yes, that’s why.) I have interesting work; any type of food I want; and three children who are on track to be taller, smarter, and better looking than me. And then there’s the simple stuff. A fresh “Cutie” clementine, the change of seasons, babies’ feet, dinner with friends. Could there be more?
Of course. The other day I told my 11-year-old he’d have to make do with an old iPad for the time being. I thought I saw tears in his eyes. “But Mom, this is ios…five.” Did my heart break for him? Yes, but not for the reason you might think. Rather, it’s because the kid knows nothing of poverty, and yet he’s feeling it; and because the insatiable want of better technology is an addiction I’ve enabled. For a second, our eyes met in incredulity, which instantly turned to understanding, then shame. First world problems.
And safety from violence? Geez, I hardly ever think about it.
People can reach out and pluck gratitude from a cold refrigerator, or an ATM, or their mobile phone, as surely as they can observe abuse, discontent, drama, and boredom.
If I’m choking on abundance (too much art, too much beauty, too much technology, too much education, too much deliciousness of any kind), it’s probably because somewhere along the way I took the “simple” out of it. The idea is “Simple Abundance,” appreciating the little things in life, so that poverty and fear will finally stop their restless pacing out of the corner of my eye. Those screaming flowers remind me that genuine strife is not too far removed in either time or distance from this safe place I call home.
Our melting pot is why I love the United States, Texas, and particularly Austin, which attracts the brightest stars of new immigrants, entrepreneurs, professionals, geeks and artists. Technology and opportunity are partly why we moved here, too. And if Austin ever stops feeling like home, I’m free to roam — another thing I’ll be thanking God for over turkey today.
Coming from a long line of roamers and immigrants, I’m sure there were some “bright stars” among them (wink), but mainly they were tough and hearty farmers. My ancestors were Symodyneses, Lacys, McGahans, Krumels, Prososki’s, every one of them transplants along the road, working their fingers to the bone, (in many cases, as is common among farmers, losing fingers) as they went in search of a good life and “home.” A place to settle, and add value; to “engage as a community” (artist Jennifer’s words); to make art; or, at last…a place even better than home.
What’s better than home? Someplace that feels like one.