It rained so hard the previous day that I had to dodge huge, shimmering puddles all over Grand Army Plaza on my way home that night. But the morning of my birthday was glorious. Clear, crisp, blue September skies.
I went for my usual run in Prospect Park. I felt strong and optimistic. It was a beautiful day, I was turning 34, and it seemed like the best of life was rolling out in front of me.
On the way back to my Brooklyn brownstone, I saw a huge plume of smoke in the sky. It was so big and so close. I had a shot of panic that my own building, or one on my block, might be in flames. As I approached home, it was clear that the smoke was coming from elsewhere.
Back in my 4th floor walk-up, the phone was ringing. I picked it up just before the answering machine got it, and my Mom belted out “Happy Birthday” with her usual joy and exuberance.
As she sang to me, I turned to look out the window and take in the magnificent view of lower Manhattan that greeted me every day. She didn’t get to finish the song. I interrupted her and blurted out, “The Towers are on fire, Mom! The World Trade Towers are on fire!”
I don’t have to tell you the rest of that story.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001.
That day changed our lives. Every single one of our lives. Forever.
Is it possible that any good at all could have come from that horrific day?
In the months that ensued, I was able to extract one shimmering pearl from all that rubble and pain. I got serious about gratitude, and when I did, it changed my life.
After 9/11, we were traumatized, confused, disconnected. Many of us fell into isolation. We were mired in grief and uncertainty. We wanted to get “back to normal,” and we held a deep knowing that “normal” was simply gone. The general mood in New York City was similar to what I feel now as we move ever-so-slowly into a post-pandemic world.
I started seeing a therapist. A few weeks in, he told me he was getting daily emails from Gratefulness.org, and they were fanning his own little flame of hope. He thought it would be good for me, too. I trusted him, so I signed up, too.
It was a simple act. Gratitude is always, actually, a very simple act.
Reading these daily messages was like pouring water on a parched garden. With their simple, beautiful, consistent teachings on giving thanks, something inside me began to soften.
When I began to introduce more gratitude in my work, a sense of possibility started to stir. When I led with gratitude in social situations, my armor dropped and my loneliness ebbed – just a bit. Increasing my willingness to express thanks in the world made me feel more at ease in my relationships with others and with myself. Something was happening with this gratitude thing. As I put the ideas from those emails into practice, I was starting to feel better.
Since 2001, I have made the practice of thanksgiving a keystone in my life. I never cease to wonder at the way a little gratitude can transmute the most challenging situation into one where joy (even just a little bit of joy) becomes more possible. It makes space for forgiveness, connection, action. Its alchemy breeds acceptance and peace. When gratitude is present, something good can come from even the most difficult of circumstances. It is a powerful, transformational force accessible to each of us, always.
Consciously and consistently committing to gratitude has changed my life in real and practical ways.
It has nourished my relationships, fortified bonds, and diminished my isolation.
It has generated creativity and revealed options that I could not see before.
It has mended broken relationships.
It has taught me real humility and real humanity.
It has cultivated in me a well of joy and positivity on which to draw when the going has gotten tough. And, holy Toledo, have these many months been tough.
I “discovered” gratitude 20 years ago in the most unlikely of circumstances. What was there to be grateful for when the rubble of the World Trade Center was still smoldering? As it turns out, a lot. Side by side with all the despair and grief, there was heroism, solidarity, blue skies, and love – so much love.
Those early doses of gratitude helped heal me after 9/11.
Gratitude can help us now, too.
We’re still finding our way through the pandemic. We’re comforting our brothers and sisters all over the U.S. after a(nother) horrific hurricane and deadly wildfires. We’re dazed by our increasingly troubled world. We’re marking 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11.
If ever there were a time to up the ante on gratitude, I'd humbly submit that this would be it.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be starting a new project on gratitude that I hope will encourage all of us to lean more on this simple, beautiful practice. I think you’ll like what you see, and I’ll invite your involvement. I’d love to hear your gratitude stories and why the simple act of giving thanks matters to you.
In the meantime, it’s my birthday, and I have a birthday wish…
Would you consider joining me in expressing your gratitude with a donation of any size to any organization that’s working to respond to our most pressing needs? For example:
-Women for Women International (in support of women in Afghanistan)
-American Red Cross or GoFundMe (in support of the recovery from Hurricane Ida)
Your solidarity in this act of gratitude would be the most meaningful birthday gift I could receive.
The way forward is through, my friends. With gratitude, we always get through together.
With all my heart, Thanks.
Here you'll find some of my thoughts about communication, contemplation, yoga, life and various other topics. Thanks for giving them a read.