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Reflecting on this day of Thanksgiving, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

For the book, On Gratitude, a number of writers took Emerson’s charge, listing some of the specific things that helped them in their writing career — things for which they are grateful.

In the book, Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’ve said it before: I write in the voice of a child. That makes me readable in high school. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don’t use semicolons. It’s hard to read anyway, especially for high school kids. Also, I avoid irony. I don’t like people saying one thing and meaning the other. Simplicity and sincerity, two things I am grateful for.”

John Updike said: “I’m not a movie star or a rock star. I maybe get two or three letters a week out of the blue, for some reason, and as I’m an old guy now, most of the letters are kindly. They do keep you going. This is an unsponsored job. I don’t get paid without readers. So I appreciate that enduring fan base. It does keep me going. And for someone to take the time to say they like me. That’s a blessing.”

Joyce Carol Oates said: “I was only about eight years old when I first read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and when we’re very, very young almost anything that comes into our lives that’s special or unique or profound can have the effect of changing us … I virtually memorized most of Alice … That blend of the surreal and the nightmare of the quotidian have always stayed with me. My sense of reality has been conditioned by that book, certainly, and I am grateful for it.”

Jonathan Safran Foer said: “I’m grateful for anything that reminds me of what’s possible in this life. Books can do that. Films can do that. Music can do that. School can do that. It’s so easy to allow one day to simply follow into the next, but every once in a while we encounter something that shows us that anything is possible, that dramatic change is possible, that something new can be made, that laughter can be shared.”


I’m hearing a good number of people upon reflecting on all the extra free time they have while staying home during the pandemic. A few seem to be accomplishing a lot, but at least as many of them are a bit ashamedly saying that they are accomplishing less.

I’m still writing but I have come to realize that as the weeks crawl by that I am writing less. Let me amend that: I am writing less for the world.

I write on 9 different sites and I keep a calendar of those posts so that I remember to keep them updated and so that I don’t post too much on any one day. For most of 2019, I averaged 12 posts per week. At a glance, I can see that I have been decreasing that number for the past two months. But the writing that has increased is my personal writing in my journals.


“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” —Susan Sontag

I wrote here recently about things being solved by walking (solvitur ambulando)   and I guess I think of those journals as a way that things might be solved by writing (solvitur scriptures?).

I’m not alone in my journaling. I saw an article about people doing gratitude exercises in order to avoid negative thought spirals, anxiety and depression.

Gratitude journaling is one of those practices. Journals can be daily but just have to be regular enough to keep your focus. A gratitude journal focuses on the good in your life and is a record of the things you appreciate which is most difficult to write and most important to write on days when you can’t find the light.

I haven’t gone fully gratitude in my journaling. In fact, I started a new journal in January and by March I was using a section of it as a timeline of the pandemic.  My journals have always been a record to aid my memory. I record the joy and the pain, the big events and the small moments I’m afraid I will forget.

I’m rarely at a loss for something to write, but if you need inspiration there are people who offer that too.

I discovered that Suleika Jaouad had started a 100-day project called The Isolation Journals. She emails a daily prompt at 5 a.m. I always read them though I don’t always write based on them.

In the updates, Suleika lists some quotes about journaling and diaries.

“It is an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.” —Anne Frank

“The diary is an art form just as much as the novel or the play. The diary simply requires a greater canvas; it is a chronological tapestry which, in its ensemble, or at whatever point it is abandoned, reveals a form and language as exacting as other literary forms.” —Henry Miller

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.” —Anaïs Nin

I have decades of journals, but I have never kept a diary. I don’t record every day and a diary always seemed to me to be about more emotional things than what I write in my journals.

“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”  ― David Sedaris

The day 55 prompt was meta: “Write a journal entry about why you journal. Are there certain stories or forms you gravitate toward? People or places you prefer to leave out? Do you imagine anyone reading your entries? Do you notice a difference between journaling with prompts and without? As a private practice or one you share with others?”

My answers are complicated.

My regular journaling habit has not changed much in isolation, other than recording the news of the pandemic changes.


I have a garden journal to record my plantings, blooms, harvests, the seasons, first buds, frosts, pests, diseases, care, and cultivation tips. That journal is pandemic-free.

I have a travel journal with my trips and family vacations with dates, places, hotel rooms, restaurants, weather, attractions, and fellow travelers. This journal is sheltering at home. I had put post-it notes in it with some notes on two vacations we had booked for 2020 (France and St. John) that have been postponed until 2021.

I have kept several dream journals to record dreams that I actually remember upon waking. Reading that journal is very strange. I rarely recall even writing about the dream weeks later. It’s almost like someone else wrote down those dreams. I haven’t had any isolation or virus dreams that I have recalled, but I have heard that others (particularly children) have been having odd dreams.

I have a ledger book where I keep many lists: the best films I saw each year, book read, records of my sleep patterns, medications, herbs and vitamins I have tried, medical records, poetry submissions, and many other smaller pieces of my life. I have always been a listmaker.

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading.”  ― May Sarton

I have image journals that began as collages made of things that interested me. They covered periods of my life – college, work, marriage, parenthood – and in the past decade they have been recorded month to month. Pages contain photos, advertising, ticket stubs, newspaper headlines, patterns, scenes, maps and anything that reflects on the month.

I know that I record all of this to aid my own memory, but I have always known that part of me believes I am recording all of it for others. I don’t know who they will be or when they will read those words but I know they are listening when I write.

film collage
One of my collages of film stills from my undergraduate days shows what I was watching – including a French cinema course.

Are You a Stoic?

I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.


Gratitude Practice


“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” -Lao Tzu

So, I’m having a conversation over coffee with a friend the other day and he says “You’re so cynical.” I’ve heard that before and yet I consider myself pretty idealistic. I also get “sarcastic” occasionally, but I think both of those are just tools of my humor.

Let me examine this situation. Four years ago I wrote a post about using a “gratitude journal.” It is a journal/diary that is supposed to be written in on a daily basis where you record things for which you are grateful. The idea is to attention on the positive things in your life. Sounds simple and easy. It’s not.

Some studies have shown that people who used gratitude journals felt better about their lives, and reported fewer symptoms of illness. They can be used to alleviate depression. In the study I had found four years ago, the greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began. I never made it that long and I wasn’t one of the successful participants that continued to keep after the study was over.

I also tried a basic daily gratefulness practice. I figured that it might be easier for me to simply review the day when I was settled into bed for the night and note at least one thing I was grateful for in that day.

A “practice” sounds so much better than a “habit” and a bit less pretentious than a “ritual.” You can engage in a practice in a more formal way, but it can be done anytime, anywhere, and as often as you want.

My gratitude practice was meant to be as simple as slowing down and being conscious of your breath.

There are lots of websites about all this but how hard is it really?

What am I grateful for from today? What did the day present to me for which I can be grateful?

I may have made it more difficult by not allowing myself the easy gratefulness: I’m pretty healthy. I have two great sons. I am happily married. I have enough money to do things I want to do. But those things can’t be used in my practice. I need to come up with things from that day. New gratefulness.

My answers quickly became rather trite. I’m grateful that when I went for a walk today I didn’t fall and hurt myself. Lunch today was great. What a beautiful weather day it was today!  I’m grateful that my sister did not call today with some new complaint.

“You’re so cynical.”

Is that what it is? Am I so ungrateful?

On the site,,  it tells me to sit down with pen and paper or at my computer and start with I am grateful for …

So, I am grateful right now that I can sit here and type this blog post and feel no guilt that I am wasting my time, and that I will click a button and it go out into the world and some people will read it. That is pretty cool and I am grateful for being able to do it.

Tiny Buddha says that by doing this I am tapping into something bigger than me and bigger than any current problems. This practice is “a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.” Now, that may be asking for too much from it.

They recommend that you write it down rather than just say or think it and I suppose it would be nice to be able to look back in my little gratitude journal and see 365 pieces of gratitude after a year.

I’m not sure that I agree with their advice that on a day when there is not a shred of gratitude you should just do it anyway. That sounds false.

They recommend – and this is very “practice” – that you choose a set time of day and stick to it. I like the end of day. By tomorrow morning, I have already forgotten a good part of yesterday.

Janice Kaplan  wrote The Gratitude Diaries and I’m not going to question her subtitle – “How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” – I’ll just say that it did not work for me. She started on a New Year’s Eve and says that she realized that how she felt over the next months had less to do with the events that occurred and more to do with her own attitude and perspective.

I guess I have some work to do on my attitude and perspective.

(Janice Kaplan did a Talk at Google about her year - watch on YouTube.)

The Gratitude Journal

I have been a journal keeper since I was 14 years old. I say journal rather than “diary.” To me, a journal is not a daily activity. It’s also not a book of secrets to hide away from family and friends. In fact, although some of my entries are lists and quite informal, I usually think of an entry as being more like an essay and I would have no problem with others reading most of the entries. (Future biographers take note.)

Recently, I encountered the idea of keeping a “gratitude journal.”

Gratitude is a word we use quite a bit, perhaps without much thought about its meaning. We use it rather loosely to mean thankfulness, gratefulness, or appreciation. Some definitions say that it is a feeling, emotion or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive.

Gratitude is a part of several world religions and has been considered extensively by moral philosophers such as Adam Smith.

The study of gratitude within psychology is a much more recent one, beginning around the year 2000. It may be part of what is called the “positive psychology” movement that was a kind of reaction to the traditional focus on understanding distress rather than understanding positive emotions.

Gratitude is not the same as indebtedness. Both of those emotions occur after we receive following help,but indebtedness implies that we are under an obligation to make some repayment of compensation for the help.  “I feel indebted to you for what you did for me” means I owe you something in return.  Gratitude for help given might motivate me to improve my relationship with someone.

An online search on gratitude journals in Amazon turned up a good number of guides, examples and even blank books designed to encourage your writing.

This post actually started after I heard Dr. Andrew Weil speaking on the radio and he just mentioned gratitude journals. I started searching.

Andrew Weil is a well known doctor, speaker and author. He is best known as a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. ,That is a healing-oriented approach to health care which encompasses body, mind, and spirit. I found his 2011 book, Spontaneous Happiness interesting to read.

He suggests strategies from Eastern and Western psychology to counteract low mood and enhance contentment, and emotional balance. The books includes a number of concepts that are often disparagingly classified as “New Age” such as psychotherapy, mindfulness training, Buddhist psychology, nutritional science, and mind-body therapies. But, more and more I hear more mainstream doctors talk about “wellness” which is really a different way of looking at health.

There are any number of techniques for managing stress and anxiety or for changing mental habits that keep us stuck in negative patterns. Some of these enter the realm of spirituality.

A gratitude journal is one of those techniques.

Dr. Weil received both his medical degree and his undergraduate AB degree in biology (botany) from Harvard University and actually spent years studying natural medicines including hallucinogenics. I think he has seen wellness from both ends of the medical spectrum, and found the answers more in what we might call non-traditional medicine, while not ignoring traditional approaches that work.  (There is more about him at )

I see a gratitude journal as a diary (if done on a daily basis – which is the recommendation) or occasional journal entries of things for which one is grateful. It is a way to simply focus attention on the positive things in your life. It sounds too easy, right?

An empirical study in 2003 (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, “Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421) showed that people who used gratitude journals felt better about their lives, and reported fewer symptoms of illness.

And so, gratitude journals may be one treatment used to alleviate depression. Studies that have shown long lasting effects from the act of writing gratitude journals were ones that asked participants to write down three things they were grateful for every day. The greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began and this “exercise” was so successful that many participants continued to keep the journal long after the study was over.

The spiritual or religious aspect is also there, if you feel that connection. Gratitude is viewed as a prized human propensity in the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu traditions. Gratitude to someone who has helped you can extend to gratitude to God.