In recent times, I have been reflecting on where my writing, intermittent though it has been, and my thoughts have focused. Following the experience with N – fully coming to terms with her schizophrenia and then discovering that she is HIV positive, led me to a place I initially didn’t think I’d be able to fully allow myself to experience, acknowledge or even get comfortable with. It was a difficult place to be, and what it evoked for me was the pain and anguish. Why had all this happened to my sister?
There were many who stood with me, and continue to do so. I am so grateful for their support, their counsel, the strength they helped me recall. There were times when the experience felt too heavy to bear. But in the backdrop the constant remained for me: seek gratitude, be grateful, practice gratitude.
Finding that core of gratitude is a journey I am still travelling. What rose to the surface easily, and what I was able to express with depth in my journalling was the pain, the loss, the sadness, especially in the circumstances surrounding the journey we, as a family have been walking with N, and my personal experience with that journey. And yet, despite the articulation of this pain, I wasn’t in a dark place, black and hopeless. I was in an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult-to-sit-still-in space, and it wasn’t always easy to really confront all the issues head on. I was passing through a stage in my journey that I needed to confront, stew in for a while, in order to get closer to the destination I believe I am headed towards: Gratitude.
In consciously making the decision to put myself in a gratitude space, I began with prayer to focus me on what my sons and I call the “thank yous”. And the challenge was to find thank yous for seemingly small and insignificant things. And so it began, with a morning prayer session, with my children, in the car on the way to school and work. And we each in turn say a prayer for the intention(s) we want to focus on.
We now invariably begin with “Thank you, Lord for…” Several things have happened in this process. The seemingly small and insignificant things are almost invariably the starting point for this dialogue.
“Thank you, Lord for keeping us safe through the night.”
“Thank you, Lord for waking us up this morning in good health.”
“Thank you, Lord for the sunshine.”
“Thank you, Lord for the rain that has watered the earth.”
This calling out of thank yous has helped me become calmer in the morning as I drive through Nairobi traffic, which at best can be an exercising affair, and at worst can cause one to contemplate ways of ending one’s life and those of many others! This space of tension, angst, anger, fill in the blank with whichever dark negative you will, had characterised a significant part of my 30s. I have chosen to end that cycle, and slowly, gradually, the thank yous are working wonders for me. A ray of light is shining through, and the warmth is beckoning many other rays that are pushing the clouds away.
The thank yous are also helping me take charge of my life in a more positive way. Over the last three or so years, I have been paring down my relationships and personal interactions. And boy, have I pared down! I’ve never been Miss Socialite surrounded by a million and one people, but I find that I have been very quick to accommodate and make space in my life for others, even if this meant compromising what I would really have wanted to do. I’ve realised that often times when I have gone above and beyond the call of duty, bent over backwards, gave genuinely from the heart, it was quickly followed by hurt and pain. Many of those around me, were only looking at what they could get out of me and not what they would share with me, give back, or contribute to building our relationship. I was in toxic relationships. In some cases I didn’t know it, in some cases I didn’t want to acknowledge it. This toxicity was colouring my view of life and of relationships as a whole without my realising it!
Paring down is not easy. It involves excising, a necessarily painful act. There were some relationships that I had held dear, for a very long time! Those were the most painful to cut off. My heart bled; it felt like the sun would never shine again. Some were not so painful or difficult to cut off. But there was the habit of having these people around, that itself took some effort in breaking. What to do without them in my life? What to do indeed! And even more amazingly, what a transformation I was about to embark on. There is a lightness about me now that I feel, that I see, that others see.
Shouting had been a key character trait of mine. I still shout (she says sheepishly), but not as often, nor with as much gusto as I used to. I feel exhausted when I’m about to embark on it, after I’ve let my voice crash against the walls and the rafters. I don’t want to be there in that space any more. I don’t want to be that person who’s vociferous anger would send my son scurrying for cover in the pantry!
I smile more! I laugh out loud more! My voice has come back, I can sing again! I’m also more forgiving. Of others, of myself. Especially of myself! I am realising, over time, sometimes through profound revelations, and sometimes through snippets of momentary flashes, that I have been extremely hard on myself and I haven’t truly learnt to forgive myself. What was it I said earlier? Journey! It is a road I am travelling, and these days, with less trepidation, even when I don’t quite know where I’m ultimately going to end up.
One of my biggest sore points but one that I’m realising is actually one of my biggest points of gratitude, is being a single mother. Let’s begin with the “single”. In my mind, I had always assumed the construct that had been tacitly and outwardly stated would come true: go to school; get the degrees; get a job; get a husband; get married; have children. Necessarily in that order. I seemed to have been on that road, having successfully done the school thing (two degrees by 24), had the job nailed and the proposal also by my mid-20s. And from the boy next door, no less, who was from a good family, whom I had known for a considerable part of my life, who was known and liked by my family, whom I had dated in high school, who was Catholic, who himself had successfully done the school and job thing and was very focused and responsible. This one I could bring home to the parents. The recipe for a match made in heaven was there. And then he called me one day, and told me, “It just won’t work!”
I was devastated! I cried, actually, I wailed (I was good at wailing in my mid-to late 20s, heart wrenchingly so!) from my soul! I was deeply hurt, but I was also not brave enough to ask him, why? I accepted the rejection, but with the fear that if I’d asked the why, I would hear something about myself that I would not like, that would destroy the image that I was a good girl, worthy of being validated by a good husband.
My hurt festered and became anger, an emotion I had nurtured over time, that would occasionally escalate to rage! I was never going to hurt like this again! And with great resolve, I began building a fortress around my heart. I would engage on my terms, as far as I wanted to go, with whom I wanted to engage. And just for good measure, I cloaked myself in a veneer of toughness, a bit of edginess and no nonsense demeanour designed to deflect any riff raff that happened to skirt the periphery. Of course the world and the universe had been grossly unfair, unkind, pick the appropriate “un” negative adjective here. I was a good girl and this is what I got? Well now I was going to be a tough girl, so deal with it, world! This became a hallmark of my relationships gone awry, with both women and men in my 30s. I would open myself up only partly, and in the instances where even a sliver of hurt sifted through, I would cut off and disengage, with lots of anger accompanying the disengagement.
I was not loving myself very much, my judgement on many of the relationships I had was skewed and unhealthy. There were those relationships, particularly with men, where I did not fully assess the pros and cons, or on even a more basic level, what I really wanted from the relationship. I simply went on the emotion of the moment, inevitably got hurt, and became even more stand offish. I used the shield of my independence, my intelligence, my ability to hold my own as the buffer that kept men at bay. There were a few that got through, with whom I developed relationships, but I would torpedo the development of anything meaningful, anything wholesome. And whilst I was perpetrating this circle of negativity, I was at the same time continually questioning myself, and wondering and reeling with disbelief as to why the husband still had not happened.
My children, I called to me. For as long as I can remember, I always knew, definitively, that I would have children. So I had always seen the “mother” bit. I just never saw that combined with “single”, but “married” had never been as crystal and as definitive as “mother”. And we are truly given what we ask for. My children arrived when my anger from “single” and a few other issues was really festering. They caught the brunt of that anger in the early years, particularly my older son. But they have also been my angels who have helped me see that I needed to work on a change. They have been a huge catalyst that has spurred me on to the path of Gratitude.
Truly, from the mouths of babes shall come profound words of wisdom. Each of my children, and they had to be sons, has a gift that has touched and transformed me. T, you are my sage. You observe, you see a lot, and in a very quiet, but determined way, you speak truth. You draw my attention to the things that I need to change, that I need to forgive. You lived through my anger. You were touched by it, in a very physical, very brutal way. And while I visited this on you, I worked through a lot of angst and anguish, because I truly love you, and yet I was caught in a cycle where the love sometimes did not come through. Where you were catching hell for nothing that you had done, but for things that I had done. And it took me time to acknowledge, accept with shame what I had done that was so wrong, and to truly begin the healing process.
Today, I look at you, and I am so proud of you. You have accomplished so much. In your quiet way, without much fanfare. You have risen, and you are coming into your own, as you walk your own journey. And here the gratitude takes on a whole new light for me, because now I am able to celebrate. Truly celebrate! Unabashedly so.
You have long struggled with getting organised and sticking to plan on those things that you don’t enjoy so much. The transition to high school was a difficult one for you, and for a while there, I thought you would not get your act together. Since this year’s mid-year holidays, I have watched you get your head in the game, commit to working hard, working ahead and keeping to plan no matter what. I have watched you take on the challenge of Math, a subject that for a long time you struggled with, and I have seen you overcome the challenge. The diligence and determination with which your homework is now done, notes for the subjects you’ve chosen are being done, over and above the requirements of all your teachers, sharing with me your victories, sharing with me your goals and timelines by when you want to achieve them.
Over the years, you have been a true friend to your brother. You have been such a wonderful example to him. You have watched over him. And the relationship continues to grow. You have taught him that we look out for each other, no matter what! When he goes down the wrong path, you bring him back to centre. You have been a rock!
M, my sunshine, my bundle of laughter. Your arrival marked the beginning of bonds being cemented. T and I became closer because we needed to protect you. You drew N to all of us, by drawing her first to you. You have been the one who has been able to get her to think of another in a positive way, by spurring her to action. A simple action that meant the preservation of life, feeding you. You have been determination and focus personified. You looked around you and saw what everyone else had accomplished and you refused to be left behind. Your hard work, your setting the bar really high has been an inspiration. You refuse to accept failure, and will repeat a task over and over again (after some tears of frustration) until you get it right. And through it all, that quick and easy smile that so easily becomes bubbling, infectious laughter.
And so what seemed like the failure to achieve the social construct in “single mother” has been one of the central points of my gratitude. My sons have taught me to forgive myself. To strive to be a better person for me, for them and for those around me. My sons have brought out my empathy even more. They have helped me allow my softness to shine through, to not feel I have to hold onto that veneer of toughness with which I had worked so hard to armour myself. My sons have taught me to be more reflective of how I live my life, because it is important for me to be a good example to them. To be the teacher who tells them that as a human, we have some very wonderful facets, but we also have some very distasteful sides to our nature. The trick is to learn to focus on the positives and not waste so much time on the imperfection of humanity. We should not neglect to acknowledge is, but we should strive to build on the positives, and let those be ones that guide our lives and our relationships with others. My sons are the gift that I have been given by God and the universe to help me walk assuredly on my journey of Gratitude.
I light the candle below as my thank you for today. A thank you that there is light. A thank you that I AM light. A thank you that I am on the way to opening up. A thank you that I am a vessel being filled with purpose. And so now I await for the clarity of that purpose to which I am being called. But it is not a passive waiting, it is a waiting guided by thank yous, because in the seeming insignificance of mundane routines, I am being called to take up the mundane with just that much more care and concern.
gratitude (Photo credit: nathalie booth)