The Light of Gratitude (1/3)

On December 12, I spoke at Gustavus Adolphus College’s Festival of Saint Lucia. It was my joy and delight to return to my college for such a female forward event. I walked into a room of powerful women, easily acknowledging the light inside of them. I spoke about the light of gratitude, hope and knowledge. My next three posts will be excerpts from those sections of my talk. If you’re familiar with my writing, you will know several of these stories, but I love revisiting stories to find how we, the readers, have unfolded. Happy Advent!

I love Advent in Minnesota. It’s cold and dark. We pull out tea and wool socks. We light candles and get lost in the rippling flames. We produce less and dwell more. We hunker down, help shovel our neighbors’ cars out of ditches, and catch snowflakes on our tongues. We bake. We hang lights. We wait for the joy and hope that comes with the birth of Christ. 

Advent not a passive waiting. It is a season of actively preparing, of cultivating our lives to nurture our truest selves. It’s getting down to the heart of the matter— what is really important— and tending to the relationships and virtues that matter to us most. 

In thinking about Advent and St Lucia, the light that comes to mind is not a raging fire but a steady flame. Reflecting on Lucia’s folktale, it is the light that comes with the goodness of service and food and advocating for vulnerable people in our midst. This is the kind of light that can change the world one kind act at a time. It is the kind of light that needs to be gently fed so that it can grow and be shared and multiply and make the world bright. Picture a lovely fire in the fireplace, a child’s nightlight, a single candle, or an oil lantern. These lights warm us and accompany us. They illuminate the way. They are a guiding presence on the journey.

On this Festival of St Lucia day, I am going to share a few stories about light in my life, and the light I am tending to, feeding and nurturing this Advent season. As I do, I’d invite you to think about where you are getting your light this Advent. Who provides light to your life? How can you be a light to others? 

The Light of Gratitude:

After watching Mary Lou Retton win the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal—as an enraptured four-year-old—my parents put me in gymnastics. I instantly fell in love, and was competing by age seven. I loved flipping and flying and twisting. I loved sweating and leaping and watching my muscles emerge. I remember coming down off the trampoline thinking, “I can’t believe most people go through life without ever knowing what flying feels like.”

Then, at age thirteen, I fell. I over-rotated on a new tumbling pass, put my arm out to brace my fall and watched it fly out of joint at the elbow. I passed out, and woke to paramedics checking my cognition. I couldn’t feel my left hand. After a painful ambulance ride to the hospital, I remember a chaotic emergency room with a lot of poking and prodding. I remember waking to dull pain and a horribly bright orange cast. 

Physical therapy was horrendous. Three days a week my therapist used deep massage, heat, and aggressively applied pressure to get my joint to straighten out. The trauma to the elbow caused tightness that wouldn’t give, and the joint started calcifying. I sat in my doctor’s office in my plaid Catholic grade school uniform expressing my frustration.

“Why won’t my arm straighten? I need to get back into the gym.”

He took a deep breath, and told me my elbow was healing too well, too quickly. My body was producing more calcification of bone than the joint could flush back out. He told me that the injury was more complicated than the dislocation and fracture. The night of the injury, the joint had cut off circulation to my hand for so long that the tissue was dying. They were planning to amputate my arm just above the elbow. In a last ditch effort to save my arm, the doctor jostled the joint around and it worked. I got a pulse back in my wrist, and they didn’t cut my arm off.

In a single moment, I went from feeling sorry for myself to feeling overwhelmingly grateful at the gift of my arm. It was a defining moment in my life. 

I went on to have a successful college gymnastics career here at Gustavus. Our team went to Nationals all four years I was a student athlete. My senior year I made beam finals at nationals, all with a slightly bent left arm.

I have walked through life marveling that I have two arms, marveling at what my body can do. My body is human. It’s broken and limited. It’s imperfect, but it’s mine. God is God and I am not, but I am strong. It breaks, but it heals, too. Inside my body, I have experienced new life. From eighth grade on, I have seen the world through the lens of gratitude. 

There could have been nothing, but there is something, and that something is very good.

This mindset has served me well. Walking through life being in love with what I have, grabbing life with both arms, literally, has brought unimaginable joy. I have two young boys now, who are the great love of my life. They are 3 and 5, and the pure embodiment of joy and delight. I cry a little bit every day because I get to be their momma. Before they were born I had two miscarriages. Twice the role of being a mother presented itself. Twice the existence of a baby made itself known. After the second miscarriage, I wondered, “What if this is my story?”

In the pain and loss, I lit candles. I stared at the light. I tended to my sense of gratitude. I had my spouse. My family. My friends. A career. For a year, it was like the little children in my life just knew. I became the favorite aunt. I loved the kids in my life with all my heart. 

Then Simon came into the world followed by Miles. I have been bursting with gratitude ever since. They are my dream come true. The other day, Simon asked if he could sit on my lap during lunch, which was not a normal request. “Yes!” I said joyfully. Miles wanted to join in, so I had each boy sit on a leg. I kissed the tips of their ears and smelled their hair and shed a few tears. My two arms— the injured and the healthy arm— were full. While they ate their apples and cheese and peanut butter I took a moment to revel at the chance to be alive. 

We do not need to go through tragedy to know gratitude. We can grow it out of our sacred ordinary lives. There could have been no left arm. There could have been no Simon or Miles. What do you have that you are grateful for? This Advent, how can you tend to the light of gratitude in your life and grow it? Will you keep a gratitude journal? Change the pictures in your frames to renew memories of people and places you adore? Or once a day, look all the way up at the sky. Allow yourself to take in the immense universe and the smallness, the preciousness of our lives. Cultivating gratitude, growing it, sharing it, is a way of reflecting light this Advent season.