A former colleague of mine once shared her idea about gratitude with me. She explained that at the end of a relationship she looks back and finds three things about the other person that elicit a feeling of gratitude. I found this idea to be more than a little challenging. “How could you do that?”, I thought. I realized it might take a long time, in some circumstances, but I also wondered if gratitude is always a possibility.
Recently I came across a piece by Erich Origen. He wrote that “to feel gratitude is to step outside of asserting the self. Gratitude acknowledges interconnectedness. No one reaches the mountaintop alone.” Shortly thereafter I read about container gardening on the Marthastewart.com website. Unexpectedly a rush of gratitude connected these two concepts in my mind and I was reminded of someone I met in Tokyo over a decade ago. Finally, after all these years, my mind was able to frame the gratitude I should feel about the relatively brief amount of time that we spent together.
In the late 1990s I moved to Japan for five years and worked for an international company. If you have spent any time in Japan – in Tokyo in particular – you will know that on any given day there are many opportunities to go out and socialize. It was a fruitful time for me. I attended interesting cultural events and parties, and organized my own social events. For one party I asked the 50 smartest and sexiest people I knew to help me celebrate my birthday at my family’s home within the Canadian Embassy compound. I made sure that they all knew this when they were invited and insisted that the men wear their yummiest suits. In the expatriate community, in particular, friendships are formed quickly as people from all over the world get together and explore Japan. When you are in your 20s – as I was at the time – it is the perfect time to be living in a major metropolis, meeting new people and experiencing new opportunities.
One day I was invited to a cherry blossom picnic near Meiji Shrine. Flower viewing events (hanami) are popular in Japan during cherry blossom season. On weekends you will find vast crowds of people sitting on large mats enjoying food, friendship and sights of beautiful blossoms. On that particular day the park was full of people enjoying the sunshine and the sakura. These were early days for cell phone usage and I have to say I was pleased to be able to call one of the Canadian brothers who organized the picnic and then see his tall frame stand up in the crowd and wave to me. When I arrived I was introduced to two friends who had joined them for the picnic. One was a representative for a major accessories company and the other was working as an architect in Tokyo. We all chatted and enjoyed the picnic and I had an opportunity to speak more with the architect, in particular. Following this picnic the two of us met up and began what turned out to be a spring and summer together enjoying outings and events. As can easily happen in fast paced Tokyo, our relationship came to an abrupt end. The complexities of life took over and, in response to my initiative, we parted ways.
It was a difficult ending for me and I struggled with why and how it had happened for a long time thereafter. I can say that a feeling of gratitude for the experience, and for the person in question, was not part of my considerations. I did not feel at peace.
So many years later it all, quite suddenly, became clear to me. What was it about our time together that made it worthwhile for me? Or perhaps I should reword this question to make it sound less self-serving. As I climb my own personal mountain top, how can I be grateful for this connection that I made? While reading the Martha Stewart website the answer hit me – the plants. The container gardening. The herbs!
I should be honest and explain that it was more than that. There were the conversations about ancient Greece. I had never met anyone who had studied ancient Greek society and used this knowledge to inform their work. There were the conversations about contemporary Japanese architecture. In my twenties I developed a passion to learn about modern architecture and urban planning. Months later there was the opportunity to view the artistic output of two family members – a sculptor and a jewellery designer- in a major art exhibition. While their works are well known in many circles, I’m pretty certain that I would not have known about their exquisite works of art independently. Of course there was also the opportunity to learn about the Italian world view and feel inspired about visiting Italy. A year later, as part of a round-the-world trip, I went to visit a friend who lived in Milan, travelled around northern and central Italian cities and discovered the energetic and inspiring Italian way of life. In many ways this leg of my trip, alone, challenged and transformed me.
Yes, it was more than the plants but the plants need explanation. In the midst of a particularly severe, concrete jungle of a neighbourhood- even by Tokyo standards – this architect lived in a small and modern, but somewhat grey apartment. I recall that the bedroom window looked out onto another nearby building. The place left me feeling cold and had none of the warm charm of my own two level apartment in Yamate, Yokohama. To some degree this is the lot of people who wish to live in central Tokyo but don’t want to pay a king’s ransom for rent. As I stood in the kitchen something caught me by surprise. I could see three planters full of herbs on the windowsill. To my surprise, all of the plants were growing quite nicely. Perhaps I was also impressed because I tend to over love and over water herbs, ensuring their untimely death. “How remarkable”, I thought, “Not only is this a sign of a green thumb, but it’s also an effort to bring life into these rather dreary quarters.” When I think about those plants I now wonder if they were simply there to be used for cooking. Or were they also part of an attempt to bring some of the natural beauty of the world indoors? It seemed to be a fitting endeavour for someone from a country known for its natural beauty.
You often hear people in Vancouver complain that they can’t afford a house and proper garden. Thinking about this small effort in Tokyo, it makes me realize that you can accomplish a lot in the smallest of spaces. Some of the best efforts I have seen to care for plants and establish container gardens have been in places like downtown Tokyo.
Moreover, thinking about this story reminds me that we need to appreciate the gifts and insights that the people we know bring to our lives. The influence and inspiration could be from something simple like the care someone takes to grow herbs. We are informed and inspired by our friends in so many ways that at the time we probably do not fully appreciate. People come into our lives for a season, a reason or a lifetime, as the saying goes. What can we do to appreciate their contributions to our journey when they are with us and when, sometimes, they are gone? As parents, how can we model this type of gratitude for our children?
So it seems that it can take quite some time to experience gratitude. As I discovered, if you can finally reach that goal the full potential of your experience can finally be fulfilled.
To honour, cherish and celebrate.
Submit your ideas about gratitude to the Encyclopedia of Gratitude
Oprah Winrey speaks from the heart about her daily declaration of gratitude while filming the Oprah show
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