The gratitude word

*Today’s blog post is a guest post written by my lifelong friend and former neighbor Leslie Ferguson Thomas. I’m always thankful for Leslie’s contributions to my blog, but I’m more thankful for her ongoing friendship, her perspective on life, and her willingness to share it. Leslie’s husband is currently battling cancer; please keep them in your prayers this holiday season.*

On the day the surgeon told us he was pretty certain my husband Josh had cancer, I was anything but grateful. I was angry. For a few moments I was consumed by it. I wanted to scream, curse, and cry, so I did all three. This year has been crazy. I won’t spend time on all the details, but basically my husband has been diagnosed with two different types of cancer, had three different surgeries, and just started chemotherapy. That is not to mention all the other typical “life” things that have happened this year.

Josh and LeslieI have always considered myself a pretty positive person. People have even accused me of being the “Pollyanna type.” I try to smile often. I have never seen the point otherwise. I try to lift myself and those around me up. I do my best. I have always been one of those people who always thought my ship was about to come in, dreams were meant to be followed, and life was meant to be spent doing what you love. I believed that regardless of the cost.

I have always believed in God/a Higher Power.  I am in awe of all the things that happen in our world. All the perfect timing, the rhythm of everything. Sunsets leave me in awe. A sunset is a continual reminder to me that we are loved. Why else would so much thought and energy be put into simply coloring the sky at night? I am sure there is a scientific reason to it all, but still I am always humbled by the sunset.

This year my “positivity” has been rocked to the core. And honestly, I no longer see myself as a “positive” person. I am positive of nothing. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know what this next moment will bring. How will my husband feel today? What challenges will we face? Will the income situation work out? Will I be able to get clients when I start my counseling practice? Will Josh and I grow old together? Will we be able to have a family?  I don’t know any of that. I don’t consider myself negative either.  I just am!!! And today just is what it is!!!

So that shift left me feeling empty. Everybody kept saying be positive. I suddenly didn’t know how to do that anymore. I still don’t. I feel like something inside of me has changed. It has changed so deeply, and I don’t know that anything will change me back. This is where gratitude has come in and has truly helped me. To me positivity is about believing in a certain outcome. I am sure others may have a different perspective on it. I just can no longer cling to certain outcomes, but I can be in this moment. I can be grateful.

JoshWhat I have found is that even in the worst moments, I can list things to be grateful for. I can look at the sunset and be in awe. I can go to our favorite lake, and be in awe and grateful for the trees. I can sit beside my husband, and be grateful for our relationship. I can be grateful for the way life is changing me. The way I have become stronger, and am more driven than I ever been. I can be grateful for how Josh’s body has healed, how strong he is, and how our relationship continues to get better and better.

“Gratitude” is my new saving grace. I am grateful for the country I live in. I am grateful for possibilities. I am grateful for the people who have helped us, checked on us, and encouraged us. Gratitude has also taken a huge weight off me. I don’t have to believe in anything. I don’t have to be positive of anything. I just have to stop and look around. Gratitude is about being in the present.

So now even in my worst moments, I try to remind myself of all I have to be thankful for. There is so much, and gratitude helps me to immediately center myself into this moment. And this moment is really all we have.

I think the most important part of gratitude is to never make yourself feel guilty for having a hard time with it, being upset, or feeling whatever you feel. I try hard to even be grateful for the emotions I wish I had less of. Gratitude to me is about being gentle and just opening our eyes to all of the good stuff around us.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody- lots of love,

Leslie

Visit Leslie’s blog at www.anembracedlife.com

The gift of a second chance

*Over the next few days, I’ll be posting essays by my amazing students who wrote in response to the question, “What are three gifts–proverbial or literal–that you’ve been given in 2013, and why are they significant to you?” Their responses made me laugh, cry, and most of all, thank God for the opportunity to invest in their lives. Today’s post is by a student who wishes to remain anonymous but wants to share her story. Names and locations have been changed.*

giftThis year, 2013, has been filled with  many life-changing events and blessings. Out of everything I have received this year, there are three special gifts that have made 2013 one of the happiest periods of my life.

The first gift I received this year was meeting my boyfriend John. We met this April on an online dating website, and we’ve been in love ever since. After a painful break-up with my ex-boyfriend in March, I was determined to find someone who would make me happy and treat me well. On a whim, I created a profile on a popular dating website and waited to see what would happen. It wasn’t long before I received a message from John, and I felt a connection right away.

At that time, I was living with my sister in Jonesboro, while he was living in Batesville. We spoke on the phone for hours every day, and we eventually decided to meet in person. My family and friends were concerned for my safety because meeting people off of the internet can be dangerous, but I was confident that everything would be fine. We met in Batesville for sushi and a movie at his place, and it was one of the best dates of my life.

After that,  we became inseparable. Even though our work schedules and distance apart made dating difficult, we were able to maintain a good relationship and quickly fell in love. Not long after our first date, John  offered to let me to move in with him in Batesville, and I was apprehensive at first. I had made many impulsive decisions in my dating life, and I didn’t want our relationship to end badly. After a lot of thought, I decided to go ahead and move in with him. Even though it was a struggle adjusting to a new town, John made the transition a little easier for me, and I am happier in our relationship than I could ever imagine. John has given me a love that I’ve always wanted, and I am very thankful to have him in my life.

The second gift I received this year was the ability to further my education at the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville, or UACCB. In high school, I didn’t have any motivation or desire to perform well. Growing up, I had a lot of things going on at home that affected every aspect of my life and made school very difficult to handle. I ran away from home when I was 17 years old, and because of that, I was court ordered to stay at a hospital’s treatment center until I was 18. I graduated high school on the day of my discharge from the hospital in 2007, and I have kept my stay in the hospital secret for many years.

I felt ashamed because I had graduated from a mental health facility, and thought that I would never be able to perform well in college due to my past.  Many people in my life have encouraged me to go to college, but due to financial reasons, I felt like that wasn’t an option for me. When I moved to Batesville with John, I was finally in a position to attend college. Even though I didn’t necessarily want to apply for classes, I thought I might as well give it a try to keep everyone from bothering me about it. Now, at the end of my first semester, I can say that I am very happy that I decided to go college. I never dreamed that I would become a straight “A” student at 23 years old, and it makes me feel very proud of myself. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of my courses and have made a lot of great friends. College has given me the courage to achieve more in life and to believe in myself.

The third gift I received this year was becoming employed at a gas station. Before moving to Batesville, I worked as a Licensed Certified Nursing Assistant at a nursing home and was financially independent. Despite the good pay I received, I was miserable and loathed my job. Once I was living in Batesville, I assumed that I would have no problem finding a job. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. I spent almost three months unemployed, and every application and job lead that I followed led to disappointment.

Finally, the week before the fall semester of college started, I received a call from the gas station about a job offer, and I gladly accepted. I have prior experience in sales, and I easily adjusted to my new job. All of the employees were very warm and welcoming, and I became fast friends with all of them. I also met my best friend Savannah, who is like a sister to me. My first months in Batesville were very depressing because I had no money and didn’t know anyone besides John. If I wouldn’t have found a job, I was seriously considering moving back home, which would have been a mistake. I have never been financially supported by a boyfriend before, and not being able to take care of myself was a big blow to my self-confidence. Now, I am happily employed and grateful to have a job that I love.

The year 2013 was filled with so many things that have changed my life for the better. I am thankful for all of the gifts I have received and the good people who are now such a big part of my life.

Day 18: Dear Perfect Baby

*Day 18 of the Dear Gratitude project is really special; my former boss and friend, Jenny Cannon, shares her reflections on her decision to forgo having an amniocentesis procedure prior to delivering her daughter, Claire, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.*

It has been six months.  Six months since I anxiously timed contractions and took a warm bath to ease the pain.  Six months since my husband and I nervously laughed and joked about my labor starting one day before my scheduled c-section.  Six months since I delivered the most beautiful baby girl I had ever laid eyes on.  And six months since we received the diagnosis– Down syndrome.

Claire DSI have a lot to be thankful for in the last 6 months:  a healthy baby, no medical complications, an amazing husband and the love and support of my friends and family.  But one thing I’m surprisingly thankful for is that I did not have a prenatal diagnosis.  Don’t get me wrong; I did not feel this way in the beginning.  In fact, initially I was angry that I didn’t have a prenatal diagnosis.  I had 3 high-resolution ultrasounds–how did the doctors not know!?!  I said many times “if only I had known, I would have…”  But when it comes down to it, what would I have done if I had known that my precious little angel would have 47 chromosomes? I can say for certain I would not have terminated my pregnancy, but that’s where my certainty ends.

Would I have let the myths and stereotypes of Down syndrome negatively affect the remainder of my pregnancy?    Would I have let my tears and disappointment get in the way of the love growing in my heart?  Would sadness and depression have stopped me from decorating the nursery or buying every piece of baby gear available?  Would the nervous laughter and excitement I felt on the way to the hospital have been replaced by dread and fear?  Would grief have prevented me from truly celebrating my pregnancy or Claire’s birth?  Would a prenatal diagnosis have caused me to give up without giving her a fighting chance?  I don’t know.

What would have been different if I had a prenatal diagnosis . . .  I will never know, and for that, I’m thankful.

Claire pageant picA prenatal diagnosis could not have convinced me that my little baby would be perfect.  Or that her smile would light up every room she enters and that she would immediately calm all my worries and fears.  Or that the love I would feel for her and the pride I have for her accomplishments would equal the love and pride I have for my firstborn child.

Today I say thank you to the doctor who discouraged me from having an amnio; thank you to the nurse who emphasized the risks involved with having one; and thank you to the sonographers for maintaining their belief that there was nothing wrong with the little girl growing in my tummy.  They were right—there is NOTHING wrong with Claire.  She is perfect just the way God made her–all 47 chromosomes!

Top 12 things I’m grateful for in 2012

Recently I wrote a blog post for my personal blog, My 2012 gift list, and listed the most significant gifts I received in 2012. I didn’t list tangible objects or even relationships on the list–I limited my gift list to the intangible yet priceless blessings I received in the form of lessons, inspirations, and virtues.

Today I thought it might benefit my soul to take a look back at 2012 and identify the top 12 things on my annual gratitude list.

  1. DSC_0075_edited-1Margaret Jacqueline. This year, my husband and I were surprised to learn that we had unintentionally created a human being. We were ecstatic to learn that we would be parents, and we are overcome with joy to share our lives with her each day. I’m truly grateful for her health throughout my pregnancy, for a safe delivery, and for her health and happiness every day since then. At six weeks old, she’s already living up to the meaning of her name and bringing sunshine into every moment of our lives.
  2. Health. Going through a somewhat rough pregnancy fraught with rough patches, complications, and negative symptoms made me much more aware of how blessed I am to be healthy most of the time. As I recover from delivering my baby, I continue to pause each time I realize just how good I have it. I can clean my house myself. I can bend over and pick things up and exercise. Not everyone I know can do these things, and I’m grateful I can.
  3. A’s. This year I completed 24 hours of graduate school and somehow, in spite of five months’ worth of morning sickness, ten months’ worth of migraines, and severe lack of sleep, I managed to make A’s in all my classes. I am so thankful God enabled my brain to function well in the absence of sleep, but more amazingly, in the absence of caffeine :).
  4. 033My husband. This year I married the one man who encapsulated the wish list I wrote months before I met him. I call him my “Wild at Heart” man; as an avid John Eldredge fan, I decided (one month before I met my husband) that I would ask God for a man like the one described in John Eldredge’s book. I knew it was a long shot–I’ve been divorced twice and knew I might be asking for something I’d never receive. But God blew my expectations out of the water, brought my husband into my life, and has blessed us with a trusting, peaceful, romantic relationship that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
  5. Real friends. I’ve always learned when going through trials and tribulations which friends were true friends. This year, I also learned which friends love me enough to celebrate the blessings in my life despite their own schedules, difficult circumstances, or limitations. All year long, I felt showered with blessings by my friends in various forms–phone calls, messages, cards, gifts, visits, acts of service and kindness–and I’m really thankful for each real friend in my life.
  6. Reality. I often live in fear of things out of my control–I worry and fret over things that most often never come to pass. This year, I learned that what I fear is not as scary as I thought, and that all the time I spent worrying could have been spent positively–writing, praying, or laughing. When I was pregnant, I worried that I’d wind up covered in stretch marks on my stomach. I didn’t get a single one. I was afraid of various complications during and after delivery, including prolapsed bladder. I’m happy to report that I pee perfectly well. I’m grateful that in many cases, reality is much kinder than I give it credit for.
  7. Our church. I spent over two years searching for a church that fit not only my credo but also my picky preferences. This year, God matched us up–and used a persistent friend of mine in the process–with a church that matches our needs and wants and then some. We already had our own personal relationships with God–we just didn’t have a group of people to share those relationships with. Now we do.
  8. Gratitude. It seems funny to list gratitude on my gratitude list, but I really am grateful for it. In 2012, I listed “be more grateful” as one of my bucket list items. In order to motivate myself, I started this blog. Since then, and about 125 blog posts later, I’m pleased to report that it worked. Writing blog posts has served as a catalyst for my personal growth. I find myself contemplating my blessings in order to create new blog posts; I spend more time focused on what I have to be grateful for and less time mulling over what I’m missing.
  9. Recovery. I’ve been a member of a twelve-step recovery program for family members and loved ones of alcoholics for over five years now. This year, I committed myself a little deeper to developing our itty bitty local chapter of the program and to attempting to share some of the experience, strength, and hope I’ve found with people around me who might benefit from it. I started praying for our local group and asked God to multiply our efforts; He has. The group has tripled in the past few months in membership, and new people show up periodically, too. I reconnected with my sponsor who lives in another town and continue to experience insights and growth as a result of our relationship. I’m sure this item will be on my gratitude list for years to come.
  10. My employment status. Having been willfully unemployed since July, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to not work. I’ve worked since I was 13 years old. I’ve tutored children, taught gymnastics, served french fries, cared for emotionally disturbed teenagers, taught classes, edited resumes, sold software, and advised college students. But this year, my husband decided to give me a break and let me focus on graduate school instead of on earning an income. Now that I’m caring for our newborn daughter, I’m continuing that hiatus from the world of paid employment and am thankful for the chance to do so.
  11. RPM’s. For those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to have reaped the spiritual benefits of a recovery program, RPM stands for reading, prayer, and meditation. Some of you who foster your own personal relationship with God might refer to RPMs as devotional time. No matter which way you slice it, spending time with God is one thing I’m most grateful for this year. Having gone through some very tough spiritual valleys earlier in the year, which I thankfully found my way out of with the help of a great counselor, I learned to depend even more on my time alone with God. Each morning, I spend a little (or a lot, depending on the day) time with God reading Scripture, praying, and meditating on what I’ve read and on the nuggets of wisdom He imparts. Life without RPMs for me means spiritual atrophy. I’d rather keep growing.
  12. Prioritization. This year, I learned to let go of some of my priorities in lieu of more important things–namely, my own health, my marriage, my daughter, and my education. I could have kept working in order to earn more money to pay for more things that I really didn’t need to begin with. I could have opted to continue shopping, running errands, and eating out after my doctor advised me to spend more time with my feet up to reduce swelling and heal my injured back. I could have invited our entire family, church body, and list of friends to visit us at the hospital and come by our house in order to keep myself from feeling lonely. But I think I chose more wisely instead. I decided to stay home and focus on what matters most right now. I decided to take care of myself rather than take care of others or entertain myself. And I decided to limit my daughter’s exposure to a very germy world in the midst of flu season. And I’m grateful I made these choices.

It’s been a pretty wonderful year. I’m thankful for the chance to share it with each of you.

Keep coming back

Today I sat on a puffy leather couch at a local coffeehouse, answering questions posed by a kind woman who’s writing a news article about our local recovery program. My enormously pregnant belly served as a great prop for my decaffeinated gingerbread latte. I curled my marshmallow-like feet up on the cushions.

Me in 2007, two months before I began my journey in recovery

What a difference five years makes. Five years ago, I attended my very first 12-step meeting out of total desperation; a crisis in my romantic relationship had alerted me to the possibility that I might not actually know as much as I thought I did. I might not be in control of every single thing. And I might need help to determine the next best step to make.

I began learning. SLOWLY. I was eager and willing to read my heart out, work through the 12 steps, and attend meetings. Changing my behavior–which, in turn, changed my patterns of thinking–was a more gradual and reluctant process. Old habits die hard, and I had several unhealthy habits clinging to life support (thus sucking the life from me every single day). Thankfully, the patient people in my group reminded me that they’d just keep loving me until I loved myself and encouraged me to “keep coming back.”

They told me to keep coming back because they knew that if I worked at it, the same miracles God had performed in their lives through recovery would duplicate themselves in my life, too.

They were right.

I’m so grateful I did not give up before the miracles began happening. And so grateful they’re still happening in my life, day after day.