Last year, I went to a restaurant in Los Angeles with a friend of mine. I ordered a salad. As I was stabbing into the last few leaves with my fork, I realised that there was writing at the bottom of the bowl. Anxious to learn when it said, I whisked aside the remaining cucumbers and tomatoes to read the message. It was a question, actually: “What are you grateful for?”
What a genius idea, I thought, to ask such a question of people after they had finished a meal, and received one of the most basic requirements of life—sustenance. It was especially thought-provoking for me because I had failed, as I often did in those days, to say grace prior to the meal.
I had failed to take a moment to acknowledge the marvellous journey my food had taken to travel from the farm to my table. I had failed to express my gratitude to all the people who, quite literally, had a hand in that journey—those who planted the seeds, watered the plants, and harvested the crops; those who washed, peeled, sliced and arranged all the vegetables I’d just devoured.
For some reason, as soon as I read that question my mind flashed back to something that happened to me in my early twenties. One of the delusions I was under back then (and, believe me, there were many) was that I was a professional dancer. I love to dance, and I’ve always been fairly good at it. I had an agent, went on auditions and even booked a few minor jobs.
The thing is, with dance, you have to be better than good. There was no magic when the music played and my feet hit the floor. It just wasn’t my gift, and I soon discovered that when, during an audition, I tried to bust-a-move and ended up tearing a hamstring.
Before that injury, I’d never heard the word hamstring before. I must have zoned out during that particular lecture in Biology class because I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know I had one. But I learned, and oh so fast, how vital a hamstring is to the proper functioning of one’s body.
When I moved, I felt pain in places I didn’t realise one could feel pain. We take the simplest things for granted, and we don’t realise just how much until an injury or ailment renders them not so simple anymore. I promised that once I’d healed, I would always be grateful for the privilege of mobility.
Staring into that bowl at the remains of my salad and the bold black letters of that question, I readily admitted that I’d broken my long-ago promise. So, what indeed are you grateful for?, I wondered. I spent the remainder of that day silently offering answers as and when they came to me.
The following day, I returned to the restaurant and asked if I could buy a few of those bowls. The manager kindly agreed. Now, every day, after taking the last bite of my breakfast, I am met with that question: What are you grateful for?
Though I do generally try to embrace gratitude—the awareness of it, the expression of it—incorporating the practice of it on a daily basis can prove challenging at times with so much happening so quickly in the world, in my life. Which, I do realise, only means I have to try harder, because joy, health, abundance and all the other things for which we hope and strive begin with gratitude.
I used to write a daily gratitude list but I’d often forget. Recently, I challenged myself to dispense with the lists and to rather view my entire world through the lens of gratitude. As a result of this exercise I’ve spent the past month seeing Accra anew, seeing people anew. We spend so much time complaining, we don’t stop to consider “What if?” What if the things and people we take for granted were suddenly gone? How would that change our lives? What is keeping us, then, from expressing our gratitude for them right here, right now?
I am writing this on Thursday, November 28. It is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. I arrived in New York yesterday, which is when my daughter also arrived from where she lives. Though the origins of the Thanksgiving celebration are disturbing (the colonisers shaking hands and breaking bread with the native Americans and then killing them off or relocating them onto reservations in order to steal their land), its current representation is at least admirable.
Thanksgiving is the busiest travel period in the United States. I find this bit of information oddly comforting: the fact that once a year, people will endure hours and hours of barely-moving traffic, and the almost predictable queues and delays at the airports, bus terminals and train stations in order to arrive at the event of gratitude.
It tells me that no matter how narrow we allow our lives and our vision to become, we are still willing to squeeze out some room for those things and people that matter, we are willing to acknowledge that there is much for which we should be grateful—which is a reminder that there is hope. No matter how bad things seem, there is always hope.
I know it’s an American holiday, but perhaps in the universal tradition of thanksgiving, you can pause for a few minutes today after at least one of your meals, and you can ask yourself: What are you grateful for? And once you have determined your answers, you can whisper, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and let the wind carry those words, like seeds, and distribute them generously throughout your world.