Every once in a while, when things in my life get extraordinarily bleak, I try really hard to fix the problem by “cultivating gratefulness.” Gratefulness is one of those things that I deeply believe in, yet I also roll my eyes at because it can become so cliché. Like we get it, everyone is grateful for family and friends and good food and a warm house to live in. Can we just start eating Thanksgiving dinner already.
I think I get annoyed at people who use a sort-of faux gratefulness to avoid having to deal with the real pain in their life. But then you have people like Mrs Harris in Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris who, through a mixture of gratefulness and ingenuity, take the hand that life dealt them and turn it into something charming and fun. That’s what I want.
For reasons I don’t want to get into (because #personal) the end of October was extremely rough for me, to the point that I was desperately praying for a word from the Lord just so I’d have…you know…something. As November approached I thought that I would write down, every day, something that I was grateful for. After all, November is the month of Thanksgiving.
And then I decided to blog about it, just to keep myself on track and accountable.
I woke up, looked at my phone, and I had a text from a friend. She said, “I don’t know if this is for you now, but I really feel God wants you to know that He loves you and hears you.”
I started crying, of course. I had my word from the Lord, and I was grateful.
I was quite surprised, on this second day of November, to discover that I had two things to be grateful for. I couldn’t decide which to add to my official list, so I added both.
First, I stuck a book in the mailbox, and knew that I’d soon receive one in return. It all came about because of a random Facebook conversation. I’d posted about gratefulness, hoping to get some advice from the wide Internet, and then this happened:
Elijah is an Internet friend who I’ve probably met when he was very small, but I don’t remember. In any case, this exchange is the sort of thing I love. It was random, books were involved, mail was involved, and Internet friendships in general have proved to be surprising and delightful additions to my life.
So I was grateful.
Second, I officially reviewed the proofs for THE SECOND PRINTING OF MY BOOK. Yes, you read that correctly. I am so close to sold out of the first printing that I need another. In less than a year. I am blessed.
(And if you are an eagle-eyed reader who was annoyed by the four typos in the first printing, rest assured that they are fixed now. I also deleted one “easy-peasy” because my dad thought it sounded silly.)
I drove down to visit my Aunt Margaret in South Carolina, and there were a lot of small things to be grateful for that all culminated in The Perfect Fall Day. The drive was long but breathtakingly beautiful, as I drove through forests of autumn leaves in their prime. Then I got to hang out with family (which is always wonderful) in their huge brick house with just the right amount of cats and books. And there was a fire in the pellet stove.
In the evening I went to a poetry night with their church, where everyone sat around an enormous bonfire and ate donuts. They were all extremely friendly. I had a great time.
I’ve had trouble sleeping lately. Maybe a better term is “trouble with sleep.” Trouble falling asleep, but also trouble waking up. You know how it is.
As I was talking to Mom on the phone one day she told me that she’d gotten a weighted blanket from somewhere, and she’d never slept better. That made me think that I should buy a weighted blanket. But I put it off because spending money is my least-favorite thing, and also there are so many types of weighted blankets online that I could comparison shop into eternity and never make an actual decision.
Then out of the blue I got a text from my Aunt Margaret: “Do you (or Jenny) want a weight blanket? Free to a good home.”
Um, yes please. I slept under it at her house that night, and took it home with me the next day. My sleep has improved. I am grateful. (The most interesting difference is I feel like I wake up less in the night.)
At this point I began to wonder if good things happen to those who are grateful in the same way that good stories happen to writers. Because a lot of the things that were happening to me felt, not like ordinary gratefulness, but like mini miracles. (And yes, I know that “mini miracle” sounds like you’re talking about children. I’m not talking about children. I just didn’t know what term to use. “Small miracles” sounds even more like children, haha.)
Potentially the biggest miracle of all happened that Friday, November 5: I finished a novel. Well, a novella. But still.
I think I’ve achieved the thing I’ve been trying to do my whole life.
When I was six years old, lying in bed unable to fall asleep, I started telling myself stories. And ever since then I’ve been trying and trying to turn those stories into novels. But I can’t.
Technically, there are two other times in my life when I sort-of write a novella. The first was a middle grade book called Leftover Princess. I wrote a couple chapters and then put it on a website for writers, and it was so popular that I was extremely motivated to keep working on it. So it was “finished” in that it had a beginning, middle, and end, and came to about 30,000 words. But I made it up as I went along and it didn’t really have a plot. The chapters were just characters doing things. I wanted to fix it–I wanted to make it work–but without a plot you can’t really do that. I tried very hard over the next few years and eventually gave up.
The second was a story I wrote for my friend Esther Mae. We did a trade–she made me a pillow with felt fairy-tale characters on it, and I wrote her a story about an alternate-universe version of herself. It ended up being a very long story, around 10,000 words, which is just on the cusp of being considered a “novella.” But it was just a bunch of goofy nonsense.
It’s interesting that both these sort-of-but-sort-of-not novellas happened because some external force was compelling me to finish. First the website, then Esther Mae’s lovely pillow sitting on my bed and making me feel guilty for not being done yet. Self-motivation has always been my undoing, although as with any character flaw, I’ve been able to improve it with consistent practice.
I had hoped that, after writing The Highway and Me and my Earl Grey Tea, my next book would be a novel. I thought that I would write a non-magical novel about Mennonites because I thought that’s what my audience would want to buy. Something lighthearted and funny, like a 21’st century Anne of Green Gables.
Not last spring but the spring before, I had an idea for a Mennonite novel and I worked diligently on it for an entire year. I re-started it three times, and the third time reached 38,777 words. That was the most I had ever written on a fiction project (including the novella I just finished, which was about 26,000 words). I was convinced I could do this if I tried hard enough. But it became so difficult, and I began to despair.
When writing is going well, you can see it inside your head like a movie. It’s like writing down your own dream. But I always hit a concrete wall, and then it’s like trying to write down someone else’s dream. And other people’s dreams never make much sense.
I had a mid-summer panic. What on earth was my next book going to be about?
To me, ideas are as common as sidewalk gum-splotches. It’s no wonder that I got another New Brilliant Idea last spring. For a while I resisted the urge to write it down, convinced I needed to be self-disciplined and finish my Mennonite novel. But then I started allowing myself to work on the New Brilliant Idea as a sort of prize, after I’d done some harder work. And thus, it flourished as a side-project.
The big problem with the New Brilliant Idea is that it’s not super marketable. I soon realized it would be longer than a short story, but not quite a novel. A novella. Novellas are quite unpopular, unless they’re for children, and this was definitely not for children. I could maybe market a Mennonite novella to my audience, but this was not about being Mennonite. Not directly, anyway. There was magic in it. And fairies. And silliness. Three things that Mennonites aren’t too fond of.
I went through a whole crisis, scrapped my Mennonite novel, and started working on a non-fiction book about the lonely, romantic, spiritual, artistic, embarrassing, purpose-searching journey of being a post-college older single. It’s going fairly well, although some of it might be too “real” to actually publish–I’m not sure how brave I am.
But I kept working on the side project for fun. I found it incredibly cathartic. As silly and magical as it is, it’s really a book about loneliness and isolation, and I was able to work through a lot of my pandemic feelings. Without the stress of actually having to publish it one day, I just had fun with it. I named all the characters after people in the books I was currently reading or the movies I was currently watching. I stuck a few real people in as side characters, just for fun. But since it had a real plot, I felt like I was doing something important. Maybe no one would ever read this story, but it would teach me how to write a novel. I would learn how to finish something. I would learn about my process.
And when I did finish it, on Friday November 5, it really did feel like a miracle.
To be honest, Saturday was not a great day. I joked with Jenny that I had nothing to be grateful for except her. She said, “well what about the baked goods I made?”
“You made those on Friday,” I said.
I decided to be grateful for hot grape juice, my fall drink of choice. I was sad, this year, to be away from the homemade grape juice straight from the vine, but I found that Welch’s heated in the microwave is nice too. Hot apple cider messes with my digestion, but hot grape juice is perfect.
Then I reflected on how I got introduced to this delicious drink. How Mom, every fall, would put piles of grapes into the steamer, and then pinch the clamp on the little rubber hose to send a stream of hot grape juice into a jar, where it would be sealed away to be later consumed on Sunday evenings with a bowl of popcorn.
Once, Steven took a green plastic teacup and filled it with hot grape juice straight from the steamer. “Try it,” he said. “It’s good.”
That’s how I found my favorite fall drink. It was all because of Steven. Also, Saturday was Steven’s birthday. I thought choosing family members as my “thing I’m thankful for” would be too cliché, but I’ll make a birthday exception. I am extremely grateful for Steven. Funny, kind, not afraid to say “I love you,” always down to randomly go see movies with me–I am immensely blessed to have him in my life.
Sunday was also not the best of days, although it was better than Saturday. As I reflected over my life at the end of the day, I decided that I am grateful for writing. With writing you can take anything terrible that happens to you, whether it’s embarrassment or loneliness or even illness, and you can turn it into something beautiful. A good story. A story that someone else can relate to and feel “seen.” Or even just something for yourself, to process your feelings and turn it into art. That, to me, feels like a miracle.
Thus concluded my first seven days of gratefulness. Come back next week for seven more.
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