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With Thanksgiving only one day behind us, and in the wake of the tragedy in Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude as the affirmation of goodness and how important it is we acknowledge there are good things in the world—things that are sometimes intangible gifts, but they still benefit us in many ways. 

Robert Emmons, a scientific expert on gratitude says, “We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…we acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”  

Individual goodness is measured by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.  By practicing gratitude we strengthen our relationships and feel closer and more committed to others. Gratitude promotes forgiveness. Studies have shown that gratitude even lowers your levels of stress hormones. 

Most of us feel grateful when good things happen in our lives, but we don't put as much emphasis on daily thankfulness as we could. Thanksgiving is about gratitude and unlike most other holidays there is nothing commercial about it. Families and friends gather for a good meal and to express their love and thanks.  Many volunteer to work in soup kitchen and donate dinners to the poor. But it is only one day.  Every day provides us with a chance to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.  

So often we gloss over the little happinesses and glimpses of beauty. Slow down and take a moment to savor them. Watch how the light filters through the pine branches or reflects off the snow.  Stand at the edge of the ocean and prepare to be astonished. If we spend more time counting blessings and considering our own mortality, gratitude will become an active part of our lives.  And if we choose a path of gratefulness, happiness will follow. Gratitude will turn what we have into more than enough.

 Today, I make a resolution to adopt a philosophy of gratitude and stay aware of how I’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. I plan to keep a gratitude journal, recording at least three things for which I’m grateful every day.  In doing this, I hope to live in a way that makes me worthy to receive the many gifts this life has offered me. May you experience happiness. May you bring light to someone else's life. May you live in joy. And may you allow yourself to feel gratitude and to multiply that feeling by sharing it with those around you. 

Dear 17-year-old me,

  First of all, you are every bit as good as that wealthy DuPont boy who didn’t ask you out on a second date after he saw where you lived. You don’t know it now, but you are so much better off without him. I want you to know you are beautiful. You are not fat, an occasional pimple does not make you repulsive, and your butt is not too big. Ride in that convertible and let your hair go where the breeze blows it. Most of all, don't ever underestimate your worth. Dream big. And remember you'll never know if you can succeed, if you don't try.

            I know you are devastated over the breakup with your first love. Don’t let anyone make you believe your feelings for each other weren’t real. I’ll tell you a secret: In later life, you will become friends and be the one person he wants to talk to before the brain tumor takes his life. You will make a quilt in his memory for the grandchild he didn’t live long enough to see. That cosmic wrong will be righted in a way that will open your heart and make it sing.

            You will make mistakes with men you choose to love. They will hurt and humiliate you. And you will behave in ways you never dreamed you would. You will do some things you are ashamed of.  Most of us do shameful things at one time or another in our lives. Be kind to yourself. And don’t let your hurt turn to bitterness or your shame darken the rest of your days.

            When love beckons again, follow it even if you’re afraid of where it is taking you. Don’t hold grudges. Forgiveness is an amazing gift to the person who wronged you, but more importantly it's a gift to you. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. But do take time to reflect, to be grateful for the good and learn from the things that weren’t. Always make your mistakes on the side of love. 

           Explore the world's religions until you find a spiritual path that feels right. If that path leads you to love and goodness, it will also lead you to God. So stay on it.

             Take the time to talk and listen to your parents. Ask them questions about their lives, about the past and their place in it.  Once they are gone, there will be no one left to answer. 

          Love your mother with all your heart. She is the earth from which you sprang. Write her long letters and visit her as often as you can. There will never be anyone else in your life who knows and cares about you the way she does. She is your greatest advocate, your biggest fan, and the one who will pick up the pieces and put you back together when you fall apart. Trust me on this. Your mom will be taken away much sooner than you know. She is so wise in matters of love, life and forgiveness. When you hear her singing hymns in the garden, stop and listen. You will never hear anything quite so beautiful after she is gone.

            Spend as much time as you can with your little brother, Jerry. He is fourteen years younger than you and will lose his mother at a vulnerable time. Don’t give up on him, no matter how much he acts out or how much advice you get from others to exercise “tough love”.  Later, when you loose him in that hit-and-run accident, tough love will mean nothing and you will never fully forgive yourself for letting him go before you had to.

            Forgive your father. Your teenage angst may tell you that you hate him, but you don’t. Realize that WWII grenade that exploded before you were even conceived took more than his flesh and bones. Though no one knows it yet, he is suffering from PTSD that has led to his alcohol abuse. He was orphaned at 6 years old and had no role models for parenting. One day he will tell you his story and it will break your heart. Open that heart to him now. Don’t waste any more time. 

         After your mother dies, and he doesn’t behave the way you think he should, hug him. His grief is as real as yours. Your mother was his first love, and though he will live another 20 years after her death, he will never love another or get over losing her. Your children will call him Pop Pop and he will love them in ways he was never able to love you. You will swallow back tears as you watch him paint your daughter's toenails or wave his crutch from the sidelines when your son scores a soccer goal. He will one day tell them you were the best thing that ever happened to him.

           Make strong connections with women of all ages. These friendships become more important as you grow older. Love and celebrate them. Life didn’t provide you with birth sisters, but you can choose your own. Hold on to your best friends from high school and college, even if your life takes you miles away from them. But don’t be afraid to let go when you no longer feel the connection. Some friends are for a lifetime--others may only be for a short while. Our time here is limited. Letting former friends go does not negate what you had when you had it. There is nothing more important than how you treat your fellow inhabitants of this planet. Be kind to people and animals. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be of service to those in need.

            Take as many writing classes as you can, read how to books, attend conferences and make friends with other writers. Practice your writing every day. The need you already have to capture life in words is going to grow. You don’t know this yet, but writing will save you. It will lift you out of your grief, help heal the holes in your heart left by the early deaths of your mother and three brothers. It will teach you all you need to know about yourself and the world around you. Though you will hold other jobs and even climb a few rungs up the corporate ladder, writing will be the most rewarding work of your life.           

            Rejoice in your children and all they will teach you about unconditional love. Take every opportunity to spend time with them. Housework doesn’t matter. Drop the dust cloth and pick up the crayons. Tell them stories. Encourage them to tell and write their own. The years pass quickly and their childhoods will be over before you know it. In what seems like the blink of an eye, they’ll turn into kind, productive and responsible adults. They will surprise and delight you—go on to do amazing things of their own. And perhaps most astounding will be the grandchildren you’ll love more than you can possibly imagine now.

            Be grateful for every day you are alive. We all experience loss and disappointment. All life is impermanent. But, trust me, you will have enormous happiness as well. You will travel to places you never dreamed you’d go. You’ll live in the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the foothills of the Sonoran Desert and the mountains of Southern Oregon. You’ll retire early and spend a decade living on an Arabian horse ranch where you’ll be free to write poetry and fiction.

            Finally, seventeen-year-old me, be brave and embrace everything life offers you. In the end, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than you’ll regret the things you did. I can promise you this: while your life won’t always be easy, you will find joy and a love that finally lasts.          

With love,
from a much older (and hopefully wiser) you.