Today, I was grateful to get up early, watch the sun rise and put the finishing touches on this ejo. Yesterday, I was grateful to be able to give my friend a hug after learning that his mum had died the night before. And on Sunday, I was grateful to spend the day picnicking with my sisters, aunt and cousins in Cape Schanck. I am a gratitude queen, able to find things to be grateful for, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Damn, I could represent Australia at the Gratitude Olympics. I am that good. But how did I get there? How did my gratitude muscle get that strong? Just as an elite athlete needs a team, a coach, and a training partner to improve their physical performance, I too have a training partner. A gratitude partner. Someone who has committed to the challenge of sharing gratitudes with me. Every. Single. Day. No. Matter. What.
I’ve known my friend Melinda for about 28 or 29 years (shut up, you’re old!). We even lived together for a while in the mid 1990s with our friend Svetlana. But after we all moved out and went our separate ways, Melinda and I didn’t stay super close. Like most of my friendships after I moved to Dubai, we’d exchange an email every now and again, and we’d catch up at the big parties that David and I throw whenever we visit Melbourne. And that was OK. It was enough.
But that all changed eight years ago today, when Mel and I started a challenge to email each other one gratitude a day for a whole year. We both happened to be going through a rough patch at the time, struggling to find positivity in our day to day lives. Melinda was feeling overwhelmed as a working mum to two young boys, trying to balance work and family commitments. And I was missing my friends and family in Australia. I yearned for the easygoing way of life back home, and wasn’t enjoying living in Dubai at all. Everything about the city was getting on my nerves, and bringing me down. And I wasn’t afraid to write about it. In fact, some of you might remember that I used to write a very acerbic ejo series called Things I Hate About Dubai, in which I unabashedly bashed the shit out of the city, on the regular. I used to really enjoy doing that, but in January 2015 I decided to decommission that series when a reader of mine called Flo wrote to me to express dismay at my attitude.
Flo scolded me, “I am so disappointed by your latest post, and this will be the last one I read from you, as we do not share the same vision of expatriation. Indeed I am very disappointed by the way you think. I experience this every day in France where I keep hearing people say they don’t like anything (or anyone) about it, and it just pisses me off. This is so disrespectful. You may not understand, and you might even be angry at me, telling me not to come back to your ejo if I don’t like it. But I just need to express myself!”
For my January 2015 ejo, which was titled Freedom, I responded to Flo, and defended my right to express dissatisfaction with certain aspects of life in Dubai. But secretly, Flo’s words had pierced my heart like an arrow. I had imagined that I was coming across as mischievous and spicy, but what was happening when I allowed myself to wallow in my negativity was that I just came across as… well, negative. And I didn’t want to be negative. I’d spent too much time and money on therapy to allow myself to slide back into old thought patterns and behaviours. So while I publicly justified my opinions, I privately resolved to not write a single bad word about Dubai for a whole year. For my own mental health and wellbeing. I wanted to change. I wanted to do better.
While I was making an effort to be more positive by not slinging shit at Dubai, Mel was doing something even more proactive and constructive to bring more joy into her life. You all remember the #100happydays challenge, right? Post a photo a day of something that makes you happy. For one hundred days. It was a lovely idea, encouraging participants to focus on all the positive things in their lives. The challenge went viral, generating over 30 million happy moment posts on Facebook. I probably should have taken part in the challenge, but I remember just not feeling it. It seemed a little forced and superficial to me, which is probably an indication of where my head was at. Melinda did take part in the challenge, and she got a lot out of it. But once she’d finished the hundred days, she was left with a feeling of “now what?” It occurred to her that a longer term commitment to a daily practise of positivity would be more beneficial than a flash-in-the-pan, social media challenge. Something she could share privately with a trusted friend, rather than posting online. Being a Doctor of Psychology, Mel knew that the idea was a good one, but she was unsure of how to implement it in a practical way.
And then she read my Freedom ejo. And she had a lightbulb moment. She wrote to me, “My unrequested thoughts/suggestion for you to do with as you wish. For improving your ongoing wellbeing in the place you reside, I think there is much to gain in training your mind to see and appreciate even the smallest positives around you each and every day. Even in the country I love I’ve found myself in the mental habit of critiquing every experience and overlooking so many positives. The 100 happy days challenge helped to shift my mindset, as I was struggling to focus on the upside of everyday life. It definitely helped to be publicly forced to find something, anything, each and every day. I often consider doing 365 happy days! Instead I’ve decided to do “gratefuls” this year. Here’s what I’d like to propose. I will send my grateful to you each day. Don’t feel you have to respond in detail, or at all. If you’d like to share your gratitude in return, well, that would be an amazing honour.”
Of course I said yes. And the rest is history. Along the way we negotiated some guidelines. We’d exchange a gratitude, every day for a whole year. We would make an effort to not repeat ourselves, so that we would always be on the lookout for new things to be grateful for. And our gratitude emails would be a no-complaint zone. The goal of the project was to be totally focussed on things that we were grateful for, and not an opportunity to whinge about life. We both understood that the intention of this wasn’t to paint an unnaturally rosy picture of our days, but rather to acknowledge that despite the inevitability of things not always going our way, we could still find something to be grateful for.
I remember how delighted I was after just the first few days of exchanging gratitudes. From the very beginning it felt like a really positive and optimistic ritual, and I really enjoyed reconnecting with Melinda, and reigniting our friendship, getting to know each other all over again. Getting to know each other even better than before.
But devastatingly, only fourteen days into our challenge, Mel’s mettle was sorely tested when she received some terrible news about her close friend Cara. She wrote to me, “Today I’m struggling to be grateful as I learned some very sad news that one of my closest friends has cancer that has metastasised to her bones. So I guess I’m grateful for my health, and that she feels supported by me.”
Over the next five years, our daily gratitude practise helped Melinda deal with the burden of initially having to keep her friend’s diagnosis a secret, of being there when Cara needed her, and of knowing when to step back when she needed space. Melinda was there when her close friend battled chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and she supported her when she became sicker after taking part in an experimental trial. She held hope for her friend, even when things were hopeless. She honoured Cara’s final wishes, and at the end she said goodbye, long before she was ready to let go. Mel tells me that our daily gratitude practise got her through the hardest five years of her life. And I am beyond grateful that I was able to be there for her, in that way.
Today marks the 2922nd day that Melinda and I have exchanged daily gratitudes. What started as a one year challenge, blossomed into something that I can’t even imagine my life without, and the two of us have been at it for eight, glorious, years. Along the way we’ve both become more positive and more resilient. We’ve both learned to laugh in the face of adversity, and we’ve developed the ability to find acceptance and peace when things don’t go our way. For instance, on Thursday, 19th January 2017 I had a skiing accident on the slopes of Nagano, Japan tearing the ACL in my good knee. My email to Mel that day read, “Today I was grateful beyond belief to everyone that helped me when I crashed on the mountain and hurt my knee. David, who came running down to check on me and then carried BOTH our pairs of skis back up a very steep slope. The ski instructor who noticed I wasn’t well and called the ski patrol. The ski patrol people who skied me off the mountain on a special stretcher. The hotel who sent someone in a car to pick us up so we didn’t need to catch the bus, and then drove us to the doctor. The clinic where they looked at me straight away and were so kind. The lady at the hotel who was SO concerned for me and let me lean on her as I limped to the elevator – later on, at dinner, she made me a beautiful origami crane and told me she hopes I feel better soon. It’s been heart-warming to the max.”
I know that in the past I would have let that accident wreck my day, my holiday and even the next few months of my life, as I hobbled around in pain. I know that I would have wallowed in self-pity and misery. And the reason I know it is because that’s exactly what happened in 1995 when I tore the ACL ligament in my other leg in another skiing accident (no, I’m not a very good skier). But my gratitude practise gave me the ability to rise above it this time, and to deal with it positively. It allowed me to see that my injury didn’t have to define me, and that despite it being a bit of a bummer, there were so many other, wonderful things to focus on. I was getting really good at this gratitude thing.
And then my Mum died. And somehow, I was still able to find a number of things to be grateful for, even on the worst day of my life. On the 26th March 2019, I wrote to Melinda, “I feel tremendous gratitude to my Mum for all her unconditional love my whole life. I am grateful that she and I texted yesterday, and that we got to see her recently on our trip back home. I am grateful to David for being so supportive and caring and loving and gentle. And for buying us both tickets back home. I’m an absolute mess right now but really grateful that even during something as devastating as this I can still find things to be grateful for.”
When you can look around you and see things to be grateful for, when everything else in your life is falling apart, you’ve reached a higher state. You rise above. You transcend. And that is a super power. Daily gratitude has given me fortitude. No matter what happens, everything is OK. It’s always OK.
Melinda’s not the only person I exchange daily gratitudes with. My sister Mary and I also do it, via text. We started about four and a half years ago when we both took part in Zimmy’s Happiness Project, a three month course designed to rewire our thoughts and actions, creating new habits scientifically geared towards increasing our happiness. A major pillar of that course focussed on gratitude, and one of the tasks was to share five daily gratitudes with a partner. I was already really adept at finding gratitude in my day to day life with Melinda, but Zimmy’s project required a little more. Not only did it call for five gratitudes a day, it also required them to be shared with someone in person (or via video). I was really grateful that my sister was doing the project with me, and that she accepted my invitation to be video gratitude partners. It was still a task that took me slightly out of my comfort zone, but doing it with a family member, someone I loved and trusted, made it a lot easier. During the three month project, Mary and I exchanged videos every single day, talking about all the things we were grateful for, which was a beautiful way to feel more involved in my sister’s life, something which I’d always felt I was missing out on, living so far away from her. It was a wonderful and easy way to get to know her better. It deepened our relationship and helped us create a more enduring bond.
I feel the same deep bond with Melinda. She shares her intimate life with me. I know when she’s had a great Pilates session, when her husband cooks a yummy dinner, when her teenage sons help around the house, and when she’s had a good night’s sleep. And I share parts of my life that no-one else in the world, apart from my husband, knows. Melinda knows when I’m happy. She knows when I’ve had a good day at work. When I’ve had a relaxing bath. When I’ve had an earth shattering orgasm. When I’ve found what I’m looking for at the supermarket, or when my favourite colleague is rostered to work with me. Melinda knows when I’ve had an interesting dream, and when I’ve been upgraded to business class on a flight. She knows when I’ve had a satisfying shit. When I’ve been paid, and when I’ve been able to bring one of my houseplants back to life with a little extra TLC. She knows when I’ve found a spare lip balm in my car and when I’ve discovered a really cool new TV show. She knows when I have fresh towels, and when I sleep on fresh, clean sheets. She knows when there’s soft toilet paper at work, and when someone’s recommended a great new podcast. Melinda knows when I’ve had a breakthrough in one of my sessions with Zimmy, when the price of Bitcoin’s trending up and when the tower toilet, which is prone to blocking, is flushing again. And she knows all the wonderful, thoughtful, kind, generous things David does for me every single day. She knows everything about my life, and being able to share that all with her is a beautiful gift for which I am very grateful.
In 2015, when Melinda and I first committed to our daily gratitude challenge, it was a challenge. Sometimes it was hard to find something to be grateful for. Sometimes I really struggled. And sometimes it just felt impossible. But we stuck it out, and we got better. We got really fucking good at it. I really do feel that if more people practiced daily gratitude, the world would be a much better place. My life is undoubtedly better for it, and I want to be able to pay that forward. If sharing a daily gratitude with a friend sounds like something you’d like to try, then I’m your girl, so hit me up and let’s do this. It might be hard at first, but if you stick to it, it’ll get easier. I promise.