How to feel grateful when you don’t think you can

thanks2Today was my first real American Thanksgiving, and I have to say that I am totally sold (not that I thought I would ever turn down an excuse to have a big feast!). I love this holiday’s focus on spending time with family and friends, and the idea of having a special day every year to remember to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.

As Verily shared today, gratitude needs to be a habit that we practice all year round, not least because it comes with some amazing health benefits. Did you know that “human beings are typically biased toward negative information”, and that the benefits of making a conscious effort to overcome this negativity bias include better mental health as well as a stronger immune system, amongst other things? The interesting thing here is that research shows that positive thinking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to most people, meaning that it has to become a habit that we prioritise, just like exercise and healthy eating.

thanks3It seems like this has become common knowledge recently, with apps like Get Gratitude to help, as well as plenty of gratitude journals and daily planners featuring gratitude sections. My friend just launched a beautiful daily journal called Bloom Lovely that asks you a simple question every day to encourage reflection, alongside inspiring quotes to keep you focused on the important things in life. I love journaling, and am a big believer in the therapeutic power of writing and reflecting on your day.

This Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do when we find ourselves unable to focus on the positive, or when it feels like a big emotional strain to think of things that you feel grateful for – and I think I have the answer.

I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, and prided myself on being able to make the best of a bad situation. Living through a rough few years, though, I’ve realised what it’s like for positivity to not always come naturally. It took me a while to accept that that was just the way that I felt and I couldn’t change it by giving myself a pep talk. Once I did accept this, though, I found a new way of injecting some colour back into my world that I think is pretty magical, and I would love to share with you.

Every day, I started trying to find one beautiful thing – whether that was a sight, a taste, a smell, or a sound – to write down in one short sentence at the end of the day in a simple pocket-sized notebook. One time it was a freckle on my daughter’s knee, another it was a flock of noisy seagulls as they flew low over a bridge in the bright afternoon sunlight, another the delicious taste of olives and a cold glass of excellent pinot grigio.

I wasn’t trying to force myself to think of something that I felt grateful for. I certainly wasn’t trying to ‘think positive’ or ‘look on the bright side’. In fact, the habit didn’t require anything of me at all, emotionally – all that was necessary was for me to observe the world around me more carefully, which was actually a pleasant way of distracting my mind from the things that made me feel sad.

thanks1The glorious thing about this habit is that while it only takes only a few minutes to do every evening, it has the power to completely transform my outlook for the entire day. In the back of my mind I’m always watching out for the magical moment that I would like to record; some days when the sky is grey I have to look a little harder to see something special in the quality of the light or to hear the beauty in the sound of rain drumming on windows, and other days I feel dizzy with the flood of beautiful details everywhere I turn. As Louisa May Alcott says in one of my favorite quotes, “It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if only one knows how to look at them.”

I’ve found that keeping what I call my beauty journal has started to create a habit of open and receptive watchfulness; it doesn’t even matter if I occasionally forget to write down my daily beautiful thing, because the habit is becoming a natural reflex.

When you think about trying to develop a more positive outlook on life, it can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But I’ve discovered that gratitude and happiness stem from living in the moment and simply observing the world around you. So if you’re ever feeling down, don’t try to force yourself to feel any other way – try simply looking out for one beautiful thing a day and see what happens.

Back to the garden

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It’s strange that I find myself thinking about gardens when I’m on a boat crossing the Atlantic surrounded by a great expanse of water on every side, without a green growing thing in sight. It’s strange that I find myself suddenly able to think clearly about the trauma of losing my father before he had reached old age as I get further and further away from the place where it all happened.

Or, perhaps it’s not so very strange; I had heard that you need distance from people, places, and experiences before you can start to process them properly. I suppose I just didn’t want to believe it, because distance is the one thing that completely terrifies me. I want to fight the distance. My father will always be far away, separated from me now, against my will. Inevitably, my memories of him can’t become clearer, but rather are destined to fade slowly, crowded out by new memories. The human mind is limited. This idea fills me with a choking panic, and makes me grasp at the familiar like a homesick child.

“My father’s body is a garden, and something evil is growing there. It clings to his bones and digs its fingers deep into the marrow. It has spread through the whole plot of land and emerged in unlikely places, choking everything in its path. It grows with an unnatural speed and blocks out the sunlight so that he gets paler and thinner every day.” I wrote this back in early 2012 soon after my father was diagnosed with cancer.

Pink roses

Gardens have always been incredibly important to my family. Whenever I think about my childhood, it seems to me that it was filled with picnics and meals outdoors, building dens on lawns, reading in the tree house that my parents had built for us as a surprise at the end of a summer holiday one year, long afternoons spent barefoot and deep in play-imaginings in our garden or a friend’s.

I often think about the beautiful Easter Day lunch we had in 2011. I don’t know what was actually in bloom that day, but in my memory the lavender is out and the air smells lovely. We set the table and chairs out on the sunny patio and heaped it with spring flowers and brightly painted eggs, and food – so much good food. My whole family was there, my sisters and my parents, and the man whom I loved, who would later become my husband; all was right with the world.

Of course you always know somewhere in the back of your mind in some intellectual sense that we are all mortal and life is never perfect, but that Easter meal felt pretty damn near to perfection. I can’t remember this day, or so many others, without the whole process ending up feeling like some kind of self-harm because it hurts so badly that I can’t ever get back to that place when we were all together, strong and healthy and loving each other in the spring sunshine.

I worry that I can’t remember clearly enough one moment, that he’s slipping away, and the next moment when I do remember, I find myself fantasising about time travel, as if willing myself back to those moments could do anything other than give me an almighty head and heart ache. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive” Joan Didion wrote in her brilliant book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, “we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” For a while, all I could remember during the panic attacks that came at night (I had to cling to my husband until they passed) was my father’s strange far away dying eyes, his body lying curled in the bed like a dead sparrow. Whenever I saw him in dreams at first, it was after the cancer had taken hold, not the strong and healthy man he was until the year before the diagnosis. When you focus too hard on remembering something, it slips away from you like a dream. What happened to 24 years worth of memories, all those memories of one of the most important people in my life?

We are golden, we are stardust, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.


In the few years between my father’s diagnosis and his death, whenever there was the remotest scrap of sunshine or warm weather we would wipe down the table on the patio and eat outside in the garden. Long lunches, candle lit dinners spent together as the moon rose overhead. Sometimes he couldn’t eat much, and often he wouldn’t speak much either, but he would sit with his eyes closed, soaking up our company and the peace of the garden around him.

And then my little sister started painting gardens. A group of deer, heads poised, a crumbling folly emerging from the fog, a yew tree raising its branches into a golden fractal mist. Order and chaos finding balance with each other. They were lonely, hopeful paintings, and they expressed what I kept trying – and failing – to express with my words over and over again. There’s a terrible beauty, a pattern that refuses definition. It’s like dying and being born, it hurts with the white-hot pain of labour. It feels like being split open and washed up on the shore of a strange new land – disoriented, lonely, grateful, angry, full of awe and wonder. 

I spent a lot of time in the hospice garden pushing the pram back and forth, trying to get my eight month-old daughter to go to sleep for her naps. It was a beautiful garden, filled with different types of roses, hollyhocks, herbs, honeysuckle, and purple clematis. Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. I felt disconnected, separate from the real emotions and sensations of my body. The day I tore the petals off a rose in anger and frustration I felt as if I was watching myself as an outsider, surprised by the violent outburst. As we sat in his room on the last wedding anniversary my parents would spend together, we could see white and blue Canterbury Bells – the flowers that my mother had in her wedding bouquet – outside the window.

The day that he turned a corner for the worse the daily reading happened to be from Amos: “I mean to restore the fortunes of my people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink their wine, dig gardens and eat their produce. I will plant them in their own country, never to be rooted up again out of the land I have given them, says the Lord, your God.” At another time in my life perhaps I would have found comfort in this small thematic coincidence, and seen it as a sign, but as it was it felt flimsy and if anything, I resented it. All I really wanted was for my father to look me in the eyes and tell me he loved me, that he wasn’t scared, and that everything would be alright. On the one hand, how natural for a scared and traumatised child to look to their parent for comfort – a lifelong instinct, hard to fight. On the other hand, how unreasonable of me, a grown woman, to need this reassurance from a dying man, when he was the one facing the unknown, his bones filled with screaming pain and his body failing him minute by minute, too slowly, too soon.

Wild strawberries

Scraps come back to me when I’m not looking for them; pressing my palm against his and marvelling at how big his hands were, feeling the rough, square tips of his fingers with my own. Balancing on the arm of a sofa, flinging my arms wide in mock drama as we mimed singing the Queen of the Night song from the Magic Flute and then collapsing into his chest in fits of laughter. The way he bounded down the stairs and jumped down the last few with a huge thump. Leaning against him, sleepily, as he put me on the toilet before bed. The time he slept on the floor next to my bed when I had growing pains in my legs so badly that I couldn’t sleep, and woke up crying from the pain. The way he pulled up my tights and swung me in mid air when he was helping me get dressed in the morning. The time I realised I was too big to do this anymore, and wanted to turn back the clock to stop myself from growing up. Listening to Van Morrison in the car on a trip to Ireland we took together, marvelling together at the way the Irish sky can melt from pure sunshine to raging thunderstorm in what seems like just a few moments.

All Souls Day was misty and grey this year. After mass in the small chapel in the cemetery we walked slowly and carefully over to stand sentinel by the graves of our loved ones, holding flickering candles and waiting for the priest to come by with his holy water and blessing. We didn’t talk to each other, but there was a strange comfort in seeing the other mourners huddled around in the mist, each one of us carrying the burden of our grief in companionable silence together.

As the fractal waves carry me away from my homeland to a new phase of my life (I can’t stop the thought from coming, even as it delivers its quick punch to the gut – a phase without dad), I feel deeply and oddly resistant to finding meaning in it all. I resist the well-meaning phrases that come to mind in a situation like this – he lives on in your memory, he is still with you, he is at peace now. For now, I want to leave this all open, a mystery that I don’t have to understand. Perhaps, as Rilke said, I can learn to love – or at least live with – the mystery, like a series of locked doors or languages I haven’t learned to speak yet. I have a feeling that we never get over a great loss, we just learn to live with it like an old war wound that never quite heals. I’ll never stop longing for that Easter garden, searching for a way to get back there, and I think I’m okay with that.

Pink rose

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Sailing to the New World on the Queen Mary 2

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

I suppose you could say that sailing to America ‘felt’ right; we didn’t realise that I would be taking the Queen Mary 2 from England to America when my friends gave me the gift of a little golden ship charm on a chain the year before I left. I had a dream last summer – again, before we decided to book the sea voyage to New York – that I was sailing along the Ligurian coast in a tiny one-person sailboat. In the dream I felt a pang of loneliness for a moment, but then when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that I was part of a huge fleet that included all of my family and friends; we started laughing and calling out to each other as we sped through the turquoise water past cliffs where brightly coloured houses and lemon trees clung to the rock face. I’ve been wearing the golden ship necklace almost every day for the past year as we prepared to leave England, and so yes – sailing to America felt right.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Lots of people have asked us why we decided to sail to the States rather than fly. The answer is that it cost roughly the same amount as flights would have done (we bought our tickets in a summer sale), and we thought it would be fun. There’s the fact that you basically get a week-long all-expenses paid holiday for the price of a flight, there’s the romance and intrigue of a sea voyage that passes right by the site where the Titanic sank, and then there’s the bonus that you can take as much luggage as you can fit in your cabin, instead of worrying about baggage allowances and weight restrictions.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA, cabin, state room

It’s also a much nicer way to travel when you have a kid – instead of being stuck in a small, crowded space with a cranky toddler for eight hours or so, she can explore the ship, get settled into a routine and adjust her body clock to the time change an hour a day, and spend time playing in the ship’s crèche while you relax with a hot chocolate, reading and staring out at the waves and the endless horizon. In the seven days we spent at sea, I only saw a handful of other vessels on the water. It’s strange – exciting, a little lonely – going without a glimpse of land for so long.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The Queen Mary 2 is essentially a huge floating hotel. When we arrived on the boat I had planned to do an hour’s work every day using the ship’s internet service, but after discovering that it cost an extortionate $47 an hour, I decided to take the first proper break from work that I’ve taken in around a year and a half. This, combined with the fact that from every window all you can see is vast expanses of water stretching away as far as the eye can see, was just about the most extreme form of disconnecting I can imagine. Why is it so hard to tear your eyes away from those constantly evolving waves? Ocean waves and fire are two of the most soothing things I can think of to watch.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

My husband teased me before we left about how eager I was to see dolphins on the voyage, and then – sod’s law – he saw a whole pod of them playing around the bow of the ship on the very first morning we were at sea, while I was having a shower. I spent every possible moment on our seven-day voyage staring out of the nearest window at the water, but didn’t see any living thing other than a few sea birds. At night halfway through our voyage I dreamed of polar bears and penguins on beautiful floating icebergs tinged pink and purple with an extraordinarily vivid sunset, as the ship rocked me in my sleep.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We had the cheapest cabin available, without a window, but it was perfectly comfortable with a decent en suite shower, a bottle of champagne to welcome us on board, and a cleaning twice a day – with chocolates and the day’s news left on the bed every evening while we were at dinner. I got glimpses of beautiful spacious suites with sea views and white orchids as we walked through the corridors, but even in one of the smallest rooms available we felt like we were living in the lap of luxury, being served a delicious breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner every day. (All the food on the voyage for these four meals was included in the ticket price, not including alcohol.)

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The lunch and dinner menus were different every day, and we were always spoilt for choice. It was fun to have to dress up for dinner occasionally, too, and made us enjoy our meals all the more.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

There was a free gym, as well as a spa (unfortunately ridiculously expensive, with most treatments upwards of $129), a free cinema (we went to see two films on our trip), a theatre and planetarium, daily mass, various musicians playing during tea and dinner, as well as several bars and a library.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Ever since we booked the trip, the part I had most been looking forward to was arriving into New York City. We sailed in slowly at 5am, the city all aglow with lights, and even though we didn’t have a magnificent sunrise that day, we had a great view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as we docked.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We usually travel to get ourselves from one place to another as quickly as possible; I’m glad we took the time, while we had some to spare, to savour this particular journey. It ended up being a much-needed family holiday, as well as getting us where we needed to go.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA