China in your hand – five lessons in gratitude
“Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand”,
sang Carol Decker of T’Pau in 1987 and, my goodness, I felt seen. All that yearning and longing, the hard-bitten awareness that a lifetime of dreams could shatter in a second.
“You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself ….”
I might not have had Carol’s hair, or her teeth, but the ten year old me had all of her angst, and sang with passion into her hairbrush microphone in front of the mirror.
“The curse of a vivid mind” indeed. I knew all about being careful what you wished for. On that point at least, my Church of Scotland Sunday school teachers and Carol were completely aligned*. It was important to know your place, and what you were and were not allowed to want.
In adulthood, that sort of pushing too far is variously called, depending on who is doing it (don’t write in, it’s just for fun) – restlessness, flakiness, overthinking, overreaching, steely ambition, drive, bold innovation or sparkling inspiration.
Whatever you call it, I have long had form for pushing a little too far and setting all sorts of things loose upon myself.
That’s all well and good, and I wouldn’t in truth have it any other way, but I have come to understand better in recent years that a sort of counterbalance is helpful; that, in fact, it is possible to reach much further, and to break much less stuff along the way (including my own heart) if, alongside all the dreaming, you can also cultivate deep appreciation and contentment with precisely where you are.
For me, that appreciation and contentment has been supported by a simple daily gratitude practice. I’m not generally very good at habits, but this one has stuck, and for the past six years – six whole years! – I have made a note of at least three things every day that I feel grateful for. I have found it to be genuinely gamechanging – taking the edge off my daily emotional rollercoaster, grounding me, deepening my relationships, making me more generous. There’s good and robust evidence from the research that supports that personal experience, and lists many more potential benefits if you’re interested in learning more.
In previous years, I’ve simply kept a running list on my phone, and filed it away at the end of every month into a big digital folder – but there’s such a wealth of insight there, so many beautiful moments captured, so much love witnessed, that I’ve long wanted to make something more tangible of it all.
So this past year, I tried something different. I bought a cheap white china dinner set on sale in January 2021, and a set of acrylic paint pens, and every day I wrote my gratitude list on mugs and bowls and plates.
This experience of china in my hand has been a very different one. The exact opposite of angst and overreach. Here are five things I’ve learned from my gratitude practice in 2021 in particular:
- The blessing isn’t just in the individual things, it’s in the sheer abundance of it all. Somehow, writing on china and watching the white space get slowly filled with colour made that clearer than ever to me. Every day, over and over again, there is beauty and love and learning. How I choose to let that abundance, that enormous privilege, settle on my heart and inform every thought and word and action every day seems to me a vital question that requires my close attention.
- It’s the simple things. Our plates are full of notes on glorious sunrises, stunning spring mornings, frosty winter mornings, birdsong, the smell of a newly mowed lawn, loud family meals, the first coffee of the day drunk alone. It sounds so trite, but the testimony of a year of dailyness is that when it comes down to it, the joy is in the small stuff.
- It’s also time. It’s striking how often the phrase ‘Time to …’ appears. Odd really, when you think about it – every day has exactly the same amount of time in it! So I think what I’m really grateful for is when circumstances and my own choices have conspired to enable me to use time to be with people I love, or doing things I love to do. That’s interesting – prompts some thought around Oliver Burkeman’s brilliant new book Four Thousand Weeks – which I’ll talk about in my next post.
- It’s people. Probably around half of the list comprises the names of people. The same dozen or so names of my most beloveds, listed over and over again on pretty much every piece of crockery, and then one-offs – beautiful conversations or encounters with people who I may have met only once, and had a wonderful conversation with, shared a moment with. Sure, my new tablet gets a mention, a new dress, a great book I’ve read, a podcast I’ve been provoked by – but all of those material things pale into insignificance compared to the privilege and joy of being in relationship with other human beings.
- It’s good to slow down. I said above that even my digital gratitude list has been gamechanging, but the experience of physically writing in ink – and slowly, because writing on curves is tricky and I was prone to smudging – meant that in the act of writing I had time to recollect the event I was writing about and experience the joy of it again. It was a like a double dose of a gratitude. And then having the physical record to hold and touch, to eat out of and drink from – that gives me another chance to remember all over again (my memory is generally woeful), so there’s this cumulative effect: I’m grateful for my marmalade on toast and for my gratitude plate reminding me that I’m also grateful for how much Frankie makes me laugh ….
Along with all that learning, it has been so much fun! It’s good for us to play, to make things with our hands. I’ve loved unpacking a new plate, playing with picking colours (I mostly closed my eyes and chose at random), even the occasional smudge and smash have added to the fun. The almost-pointlessness of the endeavour, the weirdness, the fact that I’m doing it just for the sheer joy of it, not because it’s convenient or efficient or ground breaking or clever. It has helped me to just be here now, to put aside for a while the curse of the vivid mind, and to enjoy having paint on my fingers and china in my hand.
*It wasn’t until well into my teens that I learned that the song is actuallyabout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Which only made me love it more.