When I was growing up in a largish Catholic family in the 1970s my mother led us in grace every night at the dinner table. We would press our hands together like a steeple, fingertips to our noses, bow our heads, close our eyes, and recite “Bless us O Lord, and these Thine gifts, which we are about to receive….” I didn’t know the meaning behind the words, nor did I know that the word grace referred to both the prayer we were saying as well as to a bestowal of gifts, or blessings, for which we were asking. I simply said the words by rote, stomach growling, and made the sign of the cross. Amen.
When I left home I left the religion of my childhood in the dust (sorry, Mom), and because I equated grace with religion, I never taught my son grace. Indeed, I measured meal success by how many broccoli trees he scarfed down. Around the time he hit his rebellious teen years with enough angst to damn near blow the house down, I learned from a life & creativity coach the power of gratitude:
When you express gratitude for that which you love, she said, that which you love expands.
At her suggestion I began keeping a gratitude journal, jotting down five things I was grateful for every night before I hit the light, my son often number one on the list. One night it occurred to me that the my mother’s grace of my childhood had, in fact, been an expression of gratitude that just happened to take the form of a religious prayer. Perhaps grace could take the no-frills form of everyday gratitude? Perhaps it could be as simple as thank you.
At dinner I began asking my son and my husband to say something they were grateful for, thus instituting what became a ritual. My son’s gratitudes in those years were often barely-audible grunts muttered as he reached for (what else?) the broccoli with what my mother would have called “the boarding house reach.” Still, even when the words he uttered were barely audible, I noticed a tiny shift in what I can only call the feeling or energy at the table. A deepening, perhaps? A quieting? Warmth? Love? Presence?
Of late I have been working on a number of memoir pieces that explore my relationship with my mother. As my writing delivers me to a deeper understanding of the truth and complexity of this relationship—who I am (or am not) in relation to my mother; who my mother is in her own right outside of her identity as my mother—I am riddled with anxiety about how to tell my story in a way that respects my mother. As Theo Pauline Nestor acknowledges in her most excellent Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too): “No one wants their child to grow up and write about them.”
A number of weeks ago I became so frustrated while working with this material that I rolled my chair away from my writing table to prevent myself from throwing my computer to the floor. Instead I threw my arms into the air, looked at the ceiling, and through tears asked, How the *&%$ am I supposed to write this? While the circumstances that caused my writing anxiety differed from the trials that drove me to my knees during my son’s distant teen years, I felt that same helpless, aching need for something greater than my logical mind to tether me both to the present and to my deeper self.
What happened next has changed my relationship to my writing. Without thinking about it, I said aloud, Thank you for my writing. No sooner were the words spoken than I felt a tiny shift in the energy of my writing room. A deepening, perhaps? A quieting of my fears? Warmth? Love? Presence? I said it again, Thank you for my writing. Much the way I used to write my son at the top of my gratitude list night after night despite the challenges we were embroiled in at the time, I kept saying, Thank you for my writing despite the despair I was feeling in the moment. Thank you for my writing, I said over and over and over until I spontaneously reached for my notebook and began writing furiously, words that moments before had felt choked off now spilling effortlessly onto the page.
When you express gratitude for that which you love, that which you love expands.
Since that day, when I sit down at my writing table, before I begin writing, I practice what I call Writing Grace. Writing Grace is a simple expression of gratitude for the gifts my writing gives to me. Sometimes these are tangible gifts, such as the completion of a piece, a submission, an acceptance. Other times, like today, my writing blessings are less tangible: a conscious life, an understanding of difficult material, a strengthening of my voice, compassion for my mother.
This past week I heard Anne Lamott say in a Thanksgiving interview that thank you is a state of being. By saying thank you for my writing in the midst of writing distress, I realized, I had put myself in a state of being grateful, the same state of being my mother created at our dinner table night after night after night with the words, “Let’s say grace.” Gratitude, Lamott said, gives you back your Self, it gives you back breath, it gives you back a little bit of attention. Writing Grace, I’ve discovered, gives you back your writing, it gives you back your voice, it gives you back your truth and the words to express that truth even when you are conflicted about speaking those words.
Writing Grace has given me what I can only describe as a centeredness in my writing as I continue to write difficult material. That’s not to say that I don’t continue to experience uncertainty about how to approach this material, but Writing Grace strengthens me with confidence and clarity. It keeps me tethered to my writing self and to the present so that I am able to handle bouts of self-doubt and writing anxiety with, well, grace.
How does your writing—despite its demands and challenges—bless your life? What gifts, both tangible and intangible, have you received from the practice of writing? How has your writing brought you more in tune with your authentic self, your purpose, your way of being and showing up in the world? How does your writing shape your perspective, your vision, your relationships, your priorities? What rewards have you received from your writing? How does your writing bestow you, again and again, with grace?
Before you plunge into the bustle of December, why not carve out time to count your writing blessings? Begin with the simple prayer Thank you for my writing to put yourself in a state of being grateful. Say it one time, two times, three times Thank you for my writing. Then reach for your journal or notebook or laptop and list the gifts, both tangible and intangible, that your writing bestows upon you. When you express gratitude for that which you love, that which you love expands. Dare to let yourself fall more in love with your writing.
Ironic, isn’t it, that my mother, whose less-than-graceful moments form the crux of my current writing challenge, is the same mother who instilled in me during my formative years the habit of grace that is now helping me navigate that challenge? While the question of how to write my story without compromising her dignity or my integrity remains, I expect the answer lies somewhere in the heart of gratitude. Of putting my hands together like a steeple, fingertips to my nose, eyes closed: a state of grace. Amen.
To your writing blessings,
Wow! I really needed to hear this message this morning before I dive into my writing today. Thank you.
So good to see you here, Elsie. May you have a “blessed” and expansive writing day. See you in class tonight! M
Thank you thank you thank you, Marilyn. I too am writing about my relationship with my mother and struggling with ” the question of how to write my story without compromising her dignity or my integrity” and i had never thought about being grateful for the challenge itself. It has given me deep gifts — of compassion and enlightenment — despite (or perhaps because of) the struggle. Thank you for showing me a new avenue for grace.
Eileen, I love this idea of “being grateful for the challenge itself.” So beautifully put, the “deep gifts” we get from the challenge gifts indeed. Thank you, Eileen. I so look forward to reading your work. All best, Marilyn
Oh Marilyn, this is so lovely. I love this: “I expect the answer lies somewhere in the heart of gratitude. Of putting my hands together like a steeple, fingertips to my nose, eyes closed: a state of grace. Amen.”
I’m feeling very nervous for a keynote I have to give tomorrow night (for Children’s Hospital – 400 people), and this is just what I needed as I dive into it, trying to find the right balance, the right words. Thank you, my dear.
Hello, dear Kate. What a lucky 400 people who get to hear you speak tomorrow evening. Any chance you can record it for the rest of us? I have listened to your talk on reflection from the last River Teeth conference many times and always learn something new from you! Here’s to finding the balance you want to strike in your talk. Thank you for your words, dear heart. M
Hi, Jean. Thanks for your smile. Smiles right back at you. M
What wonderful words, Marilyn! And what a wonderful idea of Writing Grace. I so needed to hear this today. BTW, I LOVE what you’ve done with this website! Love the pictures, which are sooooo you! I’m spreading your link everywhere I can! Hugs, dear friend!
Thank you, dear Ginny. Where would I be both on and off the page without your love and friendship and keen eye for words? Thank you thank you thank you. Love, M
I love the phrase ‘writing grace’ – a powerful combination. Thank you.
Thank you, Willa. I, too, love the phrase “writing grace.” It gives me a deep sense of calm. All best, M
Beautiful Marilyn! Love the picture of you by the way! Beautiful too! 🙂
Thank you, Shelley!
My writing…which is happening primarily in 5 (small) paragraph blog form at the moment…has been very liberating as of late. I have historically had a battle and love/hate relationship with writing because of all this pressure I put on myself for it to be “good” or a certain way. That blog though…I’m just writing what I think, believe, what I want to write about. And it’s short enough that I can often get the words out before my hypercritical programing kicks in :). I am very grateful for it!
And what an EXCELLENT blog it is, Martha! Best best, M
Marilyn, this is so beautiful – thank you so much for sharing. So grateful for you Writing Grace :).
I love what you capture here about the gut grind of writing: it so intensely places us in these emotional dilemmas–we witness so much, maybe mostly our own core truth at the time, but with time, we intuit more about the periphery. When it comes to writing it, we absolutely have to call on all of our witnessing selves for the version larger than the situation…essential and beautiful to grapple there just as you did…and to take us with you into the challenge and the subsequent surrender.
I know in my writing world, it matters to care how finished work will feel to those I love. I love that you are finding a way to care but still proceed. So brave to tell ourselves the story at all…and then revise it into third or fourth or fifth reality we would never know existed without trying. More of a discovery than a judgment. A deeper listening, maybe.
How can we write about our mothers without judging, accusing, insulting, lauding, praising…crying? That’s the ultimate bond, is it not? Our first love and the one which defines the other loves we will encounter!
Thank you for writing this, Marilyn. The mother-daughter relationship has to be the most intricate bond there is. It is hard to be a daughter and damn harder to be a mother. Yet, we end up being both.
Thank you Marilyn. I am just coming to this post now, as I write gratitudes for this past year, all the work I have done, every word, gesture and challenge. I wrote a post about gratitude this month also: http://laundrylinedivine.com/?p=6825&preview=true
It never ceases to amaze me how this shift happens. I love how you have illustrated this with your writing life. I will bless my fingers before I write, my art materials…as I play with my New Year’s desires and gratitudes.
Hi, Suzi. What a lovely chunk of time I just spend immersed in your blog on gratitude. I just posted my ten and feel a deep sense of calm as a result. Thank you for providing the link. Can’t wait to share it with others. I especially love your gentle reminder that the everyday miracles are so worth noting. xoxo, M