Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

When I Retired

When I decided to take early retirement, it was not a choice that I made lightly. Actually, not to put too fine a face on matters, I waffled about the whole decision until my very last day – hours! – of employment.  A staff person at the pension office had sat down to a one-on-one with me, showed me charts, and explained my options.  But I was absolutely terrified.  I am the sort of person who can agonize for ten minutes over which of two tea towels to buy; how could I possibly make a decision of this magnitude, one that would affect the rest of my life?

The pleasant and efficient woman whom I saw at the pension office was succinct; displaying financial charts that demonstrated how much money I would lose by continuing my employment past a specific date, she said, “I really can’t advise you to wait.”  Yet still I equivocated.  I asked advice from everyone I knew, even people I really didn’t like.  With one exception, I was instructed, “Take the money and run.”

In the end, that was the advice I took – but not without serious preparation. Knowing that my finances were about to plunge for a long, stringent eight months before I could begin collecting Social Security – if I even decided on that option – I stockpiled.  I hoarded pet food and paper towels, toilet paper and tissues, shampoo and deodorant and toothpaste.  I stockpiled dish and laundry detergent, cat litter and coffee and canned goods.  If Armageddon had struck just prior to my retirement, I would have been prepared. I took my car into the shop and had mechanics repair everything that could be repaired. I bought new tires.  I ditched my outdated cell phone and bought a better one before initiating a much cheaper carrier.  I haggled with my internet service provider for a better rate.  I got rid of my overpriced landline and installed a service that carried a home phone over my wireless at half the price.

I prepared at the office, too. I was an Administrative Assistant for a large office, a job I frequently referred to as “Caretaker Personality for the Asylum”.  My coworkers had come to take for granted any number of tasks that I regularly performed that fell far outside the normal responsibilities for an AA.  And since I had inherited messes at several jobs throughout my career, I was determined to leave my own work in the best possible order for my successor.  So I wrote detailed job manuals, updated multiple databases, and cleaned out files.

And finally I partied, accepted cards and congratulations, and left.

Dickens already has a monopoly on that “best of times, worst of times” phrase. But it pretty much applied to retirement, I discovered.  I missed the camaraderie of my coworkers, but not the stresses of my job, nor the unreasonable demands of petty power despots.  For the first time in living memory, I felt rested. Personal errands no longer piled up like welfare babies.  And when family needed me, I was available.  I could help relatives pack to move and prepare their new home and walk their dog.  When someone was rushed to the hospital, I could be there quickly.  Retirement gave me the ineffably precious gift of time.

But, living alone, I was often agonizingly lonely. It took me months to become accustomed to the long stretch of evening hours spent solitary, and there are times still when my loneliness is almost unbearable.

A decade before my retirement, I’d ridden the morning bus to work on an absolutely horrendous winter morning, riding through plummeting temperatures and thigh-high snow, while a bus buddy spoke of her upcoming retirement. It would be marvelous, she said, to not ever again drag herself out to slog through a snowstorm to the office. The envy I felt for her was so strong I was surprised when no one asked me where I got the green face paint!  So now, taking retirement myself, I anticipated others’ envy.  Envy, but not resentment.

Resentment was the one reaction I hadn’t expected from my circle of acquaintances. The snide remark, the veiled insult – those came as a shock to me.  I’d worked full-time since I was 18, yet I was given to understand by some (not many) that retiring early on the pension I had earned over 37 long, weary years at just one of the jobs I’d held essentially made me a leech on the neck of society – an indolent and disgusting slug.

It’s hard to shrug off that sort of remark; guilt and shame are always my go-to emotions. Yet this time, just this once, I managed to dismiss the nasty remarks.

After all, I consoled myself, tomorrow morning those same acquaintances would be struggling through rush hour traffic to deal with unsympathetic supervisors and backstabbing coworkers…while I would be sipping my morning coffee on my patio, lazily penning words for my blog.