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Archive for the ‘Gratitude’ Category

I have been thinking a lot lately about the story Linh* shared with me some years ago.  I want to share it with you.

Linh was a carefree 18-year-old student who lived with her loving father. One day she woke to chaos in the streets of Saigon. Quickly she and her father packed two small bags – their documents, money. They joined the panicked crowd swarming to the port. It seemed that everyone in the city was trying to get on a ship, any ship, to flee Vietnam. Linh, wearing a sleeveless pink sundress and sandals, lost sight of her father in the chaos. She found herself swept up in the crowd and, frightened and alone, she handed over her money to the captain of a rusty old ship. As the ship, overloaded with frightened people, pulled away from the pier, she scanned the crowd in vain for her father.

The captain sank the old ship just off the coast of Malaysia and dumped the refugees into the waves. Linh, unable to swim, struggled to shore, half drowned, losing her bag, her documents and even her sandals. Many did not make it that far.

The Malaysian authorities, overrun with refugees, took these “boat people” to a desolate internment island. It was a place stripped of trees and plants, without clean water or enough food. Linh and many of the refugees become very ill. More died. Linh was so sick and filthy that she was spared being raped. Linh told me: I had lost my father, I was so sick, I wanted to die. I lost track of time. Sometimes I thought I was already dead, that I was in hell.

Eventually a small group of brave Christian aid workers arrived on the island, living in the same terrible conditions as the refugees. Overwhelmed by the need, they offered what little medical care they could from their tent. Linh, still very ill and in deep despair, was suspicious. She asked through an interpreter why these people came to live in this hell to help strangers. Their incomprehensible answer was simple “Because of Jesus.” Still barely alive, she felt a glimmer of curiosity, a spark of hope. Inexplicably, against all odds, someone cared.

One day, as Linh sat limp on the rocky ground in the hot sun, she heard her name called on the loudspeaker. She stirred. The people around urged her forward to the aid workers tent. She was still numb, ill and didn’t speak English. But before she knew it, she was on a ship, then a plane. She did not understand where she was going, but she didn’t care. She followed and walked as if she was dead. Someone gave her a pair of flip flops decorated with pink flowers.

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The street was lined with cherry trees covered in blossoms.      (photo: B.Brewer)

Eventually the plane landed and Linh stepped out in Vancouver in her dirty pink sundress and pink flowered flip flops. Without a word of English, without documents, alone, weak, in a daze of grief. But when she left the terminal she saw a street lined with cherry trees, covered with blossoms.

Soon Linh was reunited with a relative in Vancouver, and three months later her father was found at a refugee camp. Together they started a new life in Canada, and Linh found her way to a church to learn more about this person called Jesus.  She learned English, went to college and worked as a graphic designer.  Her children are in university now.

Every spring, when the branches on the cherry trees are covered in blossoms, Linh gives thanks for her life and her home in Canada.

* name changed for privacy.

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For the past three years, instead of a list of resolutions, I have chosen a single word to focus my year.  In 2013 the word was trust, and I focused a lot on trusting God acting through me and through others.

snow, trees and sun

I still find it hard to be grateful for snow – even when the sun shines.

In 2014 I kept hold of the word trust, and choose a new word, gratitude.  Well, that word was seriously tested while I recovered from a badly broken leg for the second half of the year!

Still I found so much to be grateful for – from heat and light after an ice storm, to family and friends who fed and helped me for months after my accident, to people at work, and everyone I came in contact with.  I got back in the habit of writing thank you’s … and I ran out of thank you cards three times.

It seemed that each time I expressed gratitude, I received another gift in exchange – sometimes the gift of a person’s time or the sharing of something important in their life, perhaps a life lesson or the opportunity to help others in ways I had not even imagined.

I have been travelling on Wheeltrans, our city’s paratransit service for the past six months.  Often the rides are shared in a contracted taxi.  It’s a big city but eventually I have got to know some of the taxi drivers.

The other day I got in a cab and the driver said to the other passengers – “here’s Louise, you’re in for a great ride.  She always cheers people up.”  I was taken aback. But on reflection I realised my focus on gratitude had changed the way I interact with strangers.  I always speak to the driver or people in the taxi or bus – if they want.

I have listened to a stranger share his grief at becoming too ill now for a kidney transplant after nine years on the waiting list, and to a blind woman share her love for her job. I have heard the worry of a woman on her way – alone – to yet another surgery, and the pride of a taxi driver from Rwanda who has put three children through university – a doctor, an engineer and a teacher.

I learned from a cheeky double amputee from Jamaica that all I need in an emergency is “food, water, liquor and weed,” and from a 95-year-old woman still living in her own home that swimming three times a week is the answer to longevity.  I can’t untangle who blessed whom in many encounters, but I am grateful for every one.

One driver from Sri Lanka asked my permission and then prayed for me and my family – out loud – for most of the trip, then finished with an excellent theological rationale against infant baptism.  I still feel blessed by that experience, even though I demurred from converting to his evangelical church.

So this year of gratitude has reminded me to be grateful for every human contact, never knowing which encounter might make a small difference in someone’s life, including mine.

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Last Christmas I was given a 2014 diary with a cheerful bird on the cover – a book with a week on two pages.  I already use a smart phone and a huge family calendar in an ongoing struggle to stay organized, so a third daybook was going to add to the confusion.  But it seemed like the ideal book for a gratitude journal.

Many people encourage the use of a gratitude journal to focus on the positive in your life.  I started on January 1.  Many of my entries focused on practical essentials: A furnace that works.  Warm, sturdy boots.  Electricity.  Sunshine.  Warm mittens.  Enough money.  A home.  Sleep.  Smoked salmon.  Chocolate.  Definitely chocolate.

2014 diary book

Blessings are not shared when they are trapped inside the pages of a gratitude journal.

I was often grateful for family and community: My son, such a wonderful kid. An inspiring teacher. A helpful colleague.  Bright new interns full of enthusiasm. Church. My creative daughter.

And the world around me:  God’s love, birds singing, a bright red cardinal, laughter, snow melting, singing, a puppy next door, a cellist playing a haunting melody in the subway, and the time to sit with someone in the last week of her life.

But after a few months, I got bored with the whole gratitude journal thing.  Sitting down at the end of the day writing down what I was grateful for was too passive.

It is not enough for me to count my blessings like Scrouge counting his coins.  I need to do the harder work of actively living out gratitude in my life.  Blessings are not shared when they are trapped inside the pages of a gratitude journal.

I think blessings are a bit like coins – sure, we can count them, and we can share them. But blessings are much more powerful than coins, because when we share our blessings they multiply.

 

 

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