Celebrate The Little Steps
For J.S.– rest easy my friend.
Best-selling author, podcaster, and all-around great guy Chris Palmore recently invited me to talk to his Gratitude Group about (get this) gratitude and to read the chapter, “Wild Things Never Feel Sorry for Themselves” that I wrote for his book, Gratitude Journey Volume 3.
Reading the excerpt was not the problem. In fact, I was (and always am) honored and excited to share my writing with others (after my “Be well,” I share the excerpt with you).
The problem was knowing I would be asked something like:
“How can you remain grateful while enduring the cruelties of a progressive brain disease?”
It’s a tough, honest question. One I’ve wrestled with for years as I reluctantly gave up simple, yet important, things like running, riding bikes with my family, and tossing the football with my kids.
The truth is, for a long time gratitude seemed impossible.
When you’re enduring difficult times it’s hard to feel grateful. I mean, gratitude feels unnatural. In fact, it feels totally natural to want to escape. To want to forget. To run away to Cancun, nap on the beach by day, and drink all their Tequila by night.
Maybe I’ve matured, maybe I became disciplined enough, maybe I realized I never really liked Tequila, maybe I accepted that holding on is much harder than letting go–whatever the case–I learned gratitude, and all it’s restorative power, lies in acknowledging the small details, small steps, and ordinary actions that are so often overlooked.
Though it’s perfectly fine to be thankful for the big things, but the big things are often easily found (the sky, the ocean, the iPhone, God, Coke-a-Cola).
Daily gratitude takes daily discipline.
And spying the little things (the way the dog wags her tail, your child’s morning bed head, the running dishwasher, hearing your favorite song), with an open mind and open heart takes patience and effort and work.
And learning to be grateful–everyday– for my disease is the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As my disease advances, I have been forced, like a child learning how to walk, to take literal little steps to maintain balance. If I attempt a big step, I will likely fall. Taking these little steps has taught me to acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate the literal and figurative little steps, without the Tequila.
I’ve Never Seen a Wild Thing Feel Sorry for Itself
On Tuesday evening, at my son’s soccer practice, I lost my balance, my right knee buckled, something inside popped, and I fell.
Using Clark Able’s help, I pulled myself to my feet, took two soft steps, and fell again.
I wish I could artfully articulate my emotions for you, but all my overpriced education is allowing my to find right now is, “this fucking sucks.”
As I sit in a quiet house, with my knee elevated and wrapped in a bag of ice, I desperately want to feel sorry for myself.
I have an incurable brain disease, isn’t that enough? Don’t I deserve a break? I try to be a decent person , so why do bad things happen to me? Don’t I deserve a life with less pain and suffering?
I mean, isn’t it human nature to wallow in self-pity? Right? Please tell me I’m right.
I know it drives Cindy crazy that our living room end table is always scattered with books. These books often rotate with others on my bookshelf. They are books that, on a specific day and for a specific reason are waiting to be leafed through. They are there because they offer me comfort and insight and motivation. There are currently 7 books on the end table. One book being, The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir by Joan Didion.
If you’re not familiar, it’s Didion’s brilliant attempt to make sense of the sudden yet separate deaths of her husband and daughter in the same year. Didion writes,” In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” Like Didion, with my overpriced college degree and my years teaching literature to high school students I often do the same.
Before I began this letter to you I read DH Lawrence’s short poem, “Self -Pity”:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
A few days before something important in my leg popped, I received an email, without a subject, from a Michigan woman stricken with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She said she enjoyed my writing, thanked me for being positive, and for giving her something to think about. She concluded her email with a quote she recently tacked up in her kitchen: “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone’s, we’d grab ours back.”
The bag of ice on my knee has turned to water now and I begrudgingly admit self-pity is not a useful reaction to my situation. Self-pity only creates more self-pity. As much as I don’t want to, I know I need to turn to gratitude in moments like this.
Maybe we choose self-pity as a form of self-protection and self-preservation. Maybe self-pity is simply a way of avoiding acceptance. Maybe self-pity is the manifestation of our insecurities.
However, in the end, self-pity only makes us weaker, more isolated and as DH Lawrence might say, more domesticated.
So this week, to beat back self-pity, to be a “wild thing”, I made a list of things my swollen knee and I are grateful for. Because there’s nothing self-pity hates more than a well-crafted, wide-ranging gratitude list.
An email from Michigan without a subject.
Four hours of The Office.
A wet doggy nose on my unshaven cheek followed by an unsolicited doggy kiss.
Games of the World Baseball Classic starting at 6 am and at 10:30 pm.
Family members who help.
Friends who check in.
Warm cinnamon cake.
Ice and a refrigerator with an automatic ice maker and dispenser.
My kids telling me they love me before leaving the house for school.
The way the morning sunlight slants across the living room floor.
A comfortable couch.
Having some of the finest books ever written like Slaughter-House Five, A Year of Magical Thinking, and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin on my living room end table.
The ability to create music playlists that nudge me towards feeling better.
That scene in Rocky, when on the eve of his fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky admits to Adrienne he doesn’t care about defeating Apollo; he just wants to go the distance.
Writing to you.
My overpriced education.
Greetings to everyone who found me on the University of Pennsylvania’s Ataxia Clinic’s website! Thanks for stopping by. I have ataxia and though I’m not a doctor, I hope my words comfort, encourage, empower, and serve as good company on your journey.
Arriving Gracefully on 11/1/23!
August Book Promos for You:
Are looking for inspiration? Are you searching for a better version of yourself?
This month I joined literary forces with some best-selling authors in two awesome book promotions. Click the link below:
Recent letters you may enjoy:
Jay Armstrong is a speaker and an award-winning author. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. The leader of the Philadelphia Ataxia Support Group, he hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life.
For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents or a drink with his friends)
Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time.
You can also visit Jay at jayarmstrongwrites.com