Strangers and Shadows

I saw a woman struggling to take a selfie in front of this fountain for a good 5 minutes. As a frequent solo traveler I completely empathized with her plight. I asked her if she wanted me to take her picture and she sighed, “Yes please!” with relief. 

Even with a flash, the light emanating from the background made it impossible to capture her face. After a few failed attempts I got creative. I took my phone’s flashlight and held it up as a spotlight while snapping the photo with her phone in the opposite hand.  That did the trick. 

We laughed at the production of this whole exchange. I asked her to return the favor and she snapped this photo of me. No spotlight necessary, just a silhouette. 

When she handed me back my phone, she gave me a huge hug and exclaimed, “Thank you so much for my picture! I’ll always remember this.” I didn’t get her name, but this little exchange was such a nice way to end an already lovely evening. 

Whether I’m in New York or abroad, I find a ton of joy in asking strangers if they want me to take their picture. Sometimes it’s a mom or dad with their kids and I wind up capturing the first complete family shot of their entire vacation. Other times it’s a couple on their honeymoon. Most of the time it’s a lone traveler like myself, and in that brief moment, we’re not alone at all. 

40 Days of Gratitude

While most people give things up for lent, I decided to add something this year – gratitude.  I polled friends who suggested I train for a race, write daily, or expand my cooking repertoire with 40 new recipes. They were great suggestions, but I landed on gratitude because it was so open-ended. A race would build my endurance, writing would make me more thoughtful, and cooking would just be a fun enhancement to something I already love doing. The ambiguity of gratitude felt like an opportunity to explore and experiment. How could I push myself to practice it in a meaningful way and how would I feel or what would I learn in the process?

The Shallowness of Thank You

When I first started, I jotted down a daily list of things that I was thankful for. I happened to be in Brazil on vacation so it wasn’t hard at all. A beautiful sunrise. The feeling of accomplishment after a grueling hike. The company of people I love. After about a week, I found the exercise tedious. Journaling was like a homework assignment that I treated like filling out a worksheet. Although I was bookending my days with positive thoughts, it wasn’t having a profound impact on how I was experiencing the world around me.

Thankful Pauses 

I decided to rethink my approach and rather than write down what I was thankful for at the beginning or end of a day, I attempted to be more thankful in real-time. I experimented by setting a few alarms for myself throughout the day at random times – Noon. 3:33. 6:27 (these aren’t actually random because I eat lunch at noon, I obsess over the number 3, and my birthday is June 27th). What I found was no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could enhance that moment by working in a little gratitude. Here’s an example:

At 6:27 PM on March 6th, I found myself on the last row of a local bus in Brazil going from the town of Agra dos Reis to Paraty. It was 90+ degrees and the bus smelled awful, the seats were sticky, and there was no room for our luggage so it was piled in the middle of the aisle giving me little to no leg room. I was ready for the ride to be over 10 minutes into our 2 hour trip.

Before spiraling into a negative internal monologue, I paused. I was sitting next to my mom who was cool as a cucumber as she recounted stories about nightmare bus rides in the Philippines (they were so packed her at the time boyfriend would hoist her in via the rear window). With every bump that sent our butts flying 6 inches off the seat, we looked at each other with wide eyes. “Are we really here? Is this really happening?!” I couldn’t help but laugh. I was so thankful to have her in that moment. It’s a shared experience she and I will never forget.

Gratitude as a Protective Shield 

Similar to the bus situation, I used gratitude to reframe how I was feeling at work. Immediately after I came back from vacation, I found myself in an emotional vortex. I felt like I was failing left and right and alienating handfuls of people in the process.  I would have given anything to repeat that 2 hour bus ride a few weeks prior that’s how bad I felt. As draining and painful as the situation was, I pushed myself to think about what I was grateful for in the moment. The colleague who was giving me grief became a teacher. The mistake became a learning lesson. The rain was a sign of spring. The challenge and fatigue an opportunity to grow and get stronger.

As much as gratitude can be a catalyst for joy, it’s equally powerful as a deterrent for negativity. It dissipates feelings of anger, anxiety, and stress in a way that makes me feel in control and calm.

Beyond Lent

I’m coming out on the other side of this feeling like gratitude is a muscle. And similar to our hearts, it gets stronger the more you work it.

Your dreams and ambitions won’t go away, but you’ll want less because you actively acknowledge how much you already have. You’ll turn the mundane into the extraordinary. That cup of coffee you drink daily will taste different because you’re grateful you have it. The dinner you share with a friend will be that much more special because you’re fully present and appreciative of the opportunity to be there. And you won’t just love things in aggregate. You’ll pick up on details in a way that you didn’t before. The thoughtfulness of an email. The stranger who held the door on the train. The bustle of the bus stop below your window, a constant reminder that you live in the city that never sleeps, the greatest city in the world.

Looking back at all of my lists, half-written blog posts, and forty days of Google photos, my heart feels like it could burst. What I’ve always considered to be a beautiful, privileged life has added depth and an element of wonder that I didn’t quite see or feel before. Sadness, joy, challenge, triumph, insecurity, loss, confidence, and love… I’m grateful for it all.

Hat tip: Matt. Thank you for the inspiration you’ve given me over the years and our wonderful friendship that comes with delightful meals, thoughtful conversations, and a world of possibilities.

Spring Street

Before last week’s trip to Denver, I was constantly fearful that old habits I acquired over the last decade in New York would resurrect themselves.  I’ve spent so much time over the last year trying to soften my thoughts and calm my racing mind. I’ve shifted how I think, live, and work by eliminating excess. I worry that these practices are in jeopardy in a city where speed, indulgence, and instant gratification are ubiquitous. Can I still thrive in a place this tough, intense, passionate, and fast, while achieving a state of health and balance? I ask myself this question constantly and find myself repeatedly running away from New York in the process.

Sometimes this city swallows me whole. The buildings tower over me and I look down at my feet, avoiding their gaze. I witness people scowl at each other with disdain on crowded subway platforms while performing random acts of unkindness. But then there are days like today where the buildings feel like they’re in bloom, beacons of light stretching like spring time blossoms reaching for the skies. Streets I’ve walked down hundreds of times greet me like an old friend.

I recently wrote about my wanderlust and this persistent itch pulling me away from the city. I’m still very much on the move, but today was the first day all year that I’ve felt my beloved, precious New York whisper the words, “You’re home.”  And it was the first time in a long time I could hear myself say, “I know. I think I’ll stay.”