Training Our Brains for Positivity and Gratitude

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the infusion center. All is well. It was an opportunity to increase my health, and as it turns out, a way to work on my practice of seeing the positive and choosing gratitude.

The health center where the infusion center is located, sends reminders about appointments. I typically appreciate the reminders, but this particular one pushed many of my buttons. The reminder read “You have an appointment with Chemo Chair.” I wasn’t going for chemo, just to get some valuable medications and the help of the nurses around said Chemo Chair. None-the-less, the appointment reminder was causing the fear and protective part of my brain to fire a bit more than I liked.

To help soothe my protective brain, and turn on more of my thoughtful brain, I prepped for my appointment with Chemo Chair as I always do — with a walk, sit, breathe, and paint, in nature. As we walked I remarked to my brother that I was feeling stressed about having to go to the infusion center. As the words come out of my mouth I felt my anxiety rising. I also, thankfully, heard the word had. Actually I didn’t have to do anything. I was choosing to do it. And, it was a blessing and privilege that not everyone gets. So I reminded myself I got to do it — it was a gift I was receiving. I noted the positive, accepted it with gratitude, and walked on.

As we sat, and I painted, I noticed my focus and breath — it was calm, peaceful, and quietly joyful. I thought “I need something creative to bring me joy during my appointment with Chemo Chair.” I seriously contemplated my hiking watercolor kit, but decided something simpler with less possibility of mess might be better. I settled on creating mandala-like art on blank cards with markers — creativity, focus, joy, no mess, and I’d have my holiday thank you cards ready to go.

It was so good to have the creative outlet. I drew while I waited for a chair, and while I spent my time in the chair. It definitely brought me joy, kept me focused on good things, and was a conversation starter for people passing by.

As I navigated the many emotional, mental, and physical experiences of the afternoon I remembered this fact about our brains, from Shawn Achor:

Our brains constantly choose to focus on the negative threats or on the positive. We can practice moving our brain towards the positive, and train our brains to begin to scan for things we are grateful for.

Shawn Achor

So as I practiced noticing and controlling my breathing — in through my nose, out through my mouth — and monitored how I was feeling — I began to scan for things I was grateful for in my life and day. Here’s my list:

  • I had an appointment with Chemo Chair. Not everyone gets to have one. And, the chair was quite lovely — comfy, with options to recline or heat the seat.
  • I have access to the medications I need, insurance to help with the cost, and a great medical center close by.
  • I had food for breakfast, a warm house, a place to cook the food, a warm shower, and clothes I like to wear.
  • I have a car, money for gas, and a brother who was free and willing to drive me. He even purposefully chose a hiking video with great views and sounds to watch before we left — and then reminded me to think of them as I got my meds.
  • The nurse I encountered as I climbed the stairs to the infusion center. She seemed surprised that I said hello, but as she passed me she said “Have a great day and a Happy New Year!”
  • The people who check me in each time I go, and greet me with an enthusiastic “Good golly Miss Molly!”
  • The nurses — who work like dogs, by the way — who are professional, talented, and caring. At one point I pressed the emergency button – allergic reaction — and in a flash, or less than a flash, half a dozen nurses were in front of me. The anxious tears forming in my eyes, stopped as I laughed and said “Wow. That was so fast — and there’s so many of you!” We chuckled together as they each did their bit to check in, get a doctor, give me more meds, or smile and chat.
  • The cards and fabulous new markers that I was able to get on the cheap — I had a $5 voucher and found a 20% off coupon! I accidentally bought gatefold cards. Who even knew there were such things? This snafu miffed me at first, but then became fodder for new creative ideas and a cool design revision.
  • I finished creating more than half of my holiday thank you cards.
  • My sweet cousin, and the fab bracelet she got me, and the fact that I was able to find it as I hurried about in the morning gathering the things I wanted to bring with me.
  • I felt pretty rotten when I got done in the chair — but I didn’t have to drive myself home. And when I got home, I brewed myself a cup of tea, had a bite to eat, took some ibuprofen, and headed to bed. Again, things to be grateful for were many — my home, heat, a comfortable bed, lovely pillows, a weighted blanket, tea, hot water, a mug I love, a ridiculously large water thermos gifted by a Kindergartner who’s mom said to me “It’s life changing, Miss James!” I laughed when she said it, but I gotta say, it was wonderful to have it by my bed so I didn’t have to get up for refills!
  • My family and friends who always support and love me, and who pray for me and send good vibes always — but especially when I’m feeling less than fantabulous.
  • And then of course the gigantic things like beautiful weather, peace, breath, and life.

I keep saying I’m going to do a daily gratitude practice, and then don’t. I think I may see if I can add it to my nighttime routine. I may not write anything down for now. I think making it simple and able to be down with nothing other than my heart and mind will make me more likely to stick with it. If you give it a try, let me now how it goes.

Peace. Love. Positivity. Gratitude.


Share Your Gratitude

We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart.
Brother David Steindl-Rast

It’s been a long few days with my Kindergartners. It seems like I was constantly having to bring them back, constantly having to ask for their attention, constantly having to scold them in some way. Now, to be fair, it wasn’t actually constantly. There were many moments of marvel, joy, laughter, love, and all around fantabulousness. Those beautiful moments far outnumbered the frustrating angst filled ones. And yet, those moments that were less than I hoped for, those moments when I was less than I hoped to be, weighed heavy on me. I struggled to figure out what I might do, and how to get both them, and me, back on track.

With that on my mind and heart, I headed to my coaching gig. As I entered, I ran into a friend. “Hey!” I said, smiling under my mask. Seeing me she said, “I’m sorry, I just have to …” as she reached in and gave me a hug. I laughed out loud as we embraced before hurrying off to be with my HS athletes.

At the end of the night I popped over to say goodbye and my friend handed me a bag and a lovely vase of flowers. “What’s this?” I asked. “Just a little something to say thank you.” she replied. I thanked her, and gave her a tight squeeze as we got her daughter to take a quick photo. Then, we were both on our way.

My way included having to wait with some athletes whose parents hadn’t yet arrived. I was tired and none to happy to have to wait. But wait I did, and as I waited I opened the bag, read the card, and looked at the gift. In the card, my friend detailed the first time she met met me. She was late to pick up her daughter and I waited, outside, with her daughter. I made sure she got into the car alright, and pleasantly said hello before heading off for the night. She told me how much that relatively small act meant to her. The note, the flowers, and the gift — You make a difference. That’s all. — touched my heart and mind. They were the one grateful thought that allowed me to see the truth, take a breath, and find some peace.

How amazing, right? Her gratitude for my waiting with her daughter came at the moment when I was miffed at having to wait, in my exhausted state, with someone else’s daughter. Her acknowledgement, affirmation, and gratitude for the difference I make in the lives of others — with the smallest of acts — was the one grateful thought I needed. Her gratitude, shared with me, helped me to see the truth, helped me to take a breath, helped me to be present — present to truth, to opportunity, to joy, to peace. As I took a breath, I turned to the athlete still waiting. Instead of expressing any impatience, I simply chose to enter the moment with another human being. The peace and joy were much nicer than the angst.

Later that night, I realized I had received another grateful thought at the very beginning of the day. If you notice in the photo, there’s a bit of a yarn chain nestled in front of the flowers. That was a gift from one of my Kindergartners. I taught them how to finger knit a couple weeks ago. First thing in the morning, Jay came into our learning space, and came to me, as she does every morning, to greet me. It’s a routine I treasure. Today she held the finger knitting up for me to see. I told her it was beautiful. She said, “I made it for you!” I responded, “Thank you so much!” as I placed it on my neck.

That finger knitting chain stayed on my neck all day. I forgot about it until I got home and looked in the mirror. Seeing it, I realized my sweet Kindergartner had shared a grateful thought with me at the very beginning of our day. I love that her grateful thought had rested close to my heart all day. As I placed it by the other gifts for a photograph I again took a breath, embraced the truth, and experienced peace and joy.

Never underestimate the power of gratitude. Never hesitate to express it. Your gratitude — for yourself, your life, and towards others — may be the one thought of gratitude needed to find peace and joy.

A Walk in the Woods

The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy. (Abraham H. Maslow)

What a great quote. I love the assertion that the basic goods of life can be appreciated and experienced with “awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.” I love it, and yet as I think about it, I have two conflicting thoughts. The first is “Wow, wouldn’t that be an amazing way to live life? Constantly in awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy over the basic goods of life!” The other is “Oh come on, how is that even possible?”

Great question!

As I contemplate it in my own life I’m noticing several things that allow me to spend moments in that space of awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.

I experience it most, I think, when I’m walking in the woods. And, I’m most able to experience it, even there, when I am:
…. mindfully present
… curious
… willing to be child-like, or as Maslow says, naive — which includes a openness to surprise, wonder, and awe.

When I’m truly present, rather than simply walking in the woods with my heart and mind somewhere else, the woods are a never ending source of surprise and amazement. I find myself constantly telling my brother “Oh! Look at that!” or “Wow! That’s so beautiful!”

Sometimes, I catch myself, laugh, and ask “Geez, do you ever want to slap me for saying – Oh, look at this – about the same thing when I see it again later on?” Thankfully he never does — partly because he’s super patient, partly because he, too, knows and lives with wonder and awe.

Here are some of the basic goods of life I encountered on our last walk that I experienced with awe, pleasure, wonder and even, a bit of ecstasy.

These days we traverse tons of leaves as we search out our favorite spots along the river. This day, one of them hitched a ride on my laces. It made me chuckle when I noticed it.

Instead of brushing it off, I let it stay with me at the river. I appreciated its texture and the way it looked against the river. I admired its ingenuity and courage, and imagined it enjoying its moment in the sun by the river.

Silly? Perhaps. Naive? Maybe. A moment of wonder, awe, joy, and even a bit of ecstasy? Absolutely.

Perhaps Maslow believed we are most fortunate in these moments, because he knew these moments open us to gratitude, and gratitude makes happiness possible.


I’m part of a fab blogging community. This week’s invitation was lists. When you can’t write, or don’t feel like writing, write a list.

I didn’t immediately respond to the prompt. Instead I made books.

I sent them to a handful of friends. As I was putting them in the envelopes, my mind turned to random acts of kindness, and of others I could gift with these little books. Then I thought “Me! I want one.” So, in the spirit of being kind to myself, my name was added to the list!

Turns out I was making lists, I just wasn’t aware of it.

As I added color to the pages I thought, “OH! This book is actually a list … of sorts.” Then, while photographing and processing the photos for this post, I was struck by how blessed I am, and chuckled “Another list — gratitude.”

And just like that, I went from no lists, to several lists.

I’ll share the book, and simply encourage you to create your own list of gratitude. It can start as a very small list. But whether it is small, medium or large, be open to it growing. In my experience as soon as I begin to take note, and be grateful, I notice more. It’s as though my eyes and mind are more able to not only see, but to perceive, the plethora of blessings in each moment.

Gotta love lists!

I love these one page folded books!

Gratitude and Awe

Have you heard of Brother David Steindl-Rast? I can’t recall when I first came upon him. What I do recall is listening to his audible book The Grateful Heart over and over again as I commuted to and from work. I love his voice, his spirit, and his ideas.

I recently rewatched his  TEDtalk — Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful  and short video A Grateful Day. I was nearly weeping as I finished them. There is so very much for which to be grateful. Moments of gift surround us every day, we need only, as Brother David says, open our hearts to them.

My heart was open the other day as I chatted with a dear friend of mine. As we talked, she told me that I am one of the people who most encourages her as an artist. I was kind of surprised. I admire her as a creative. She’s a creative thinker and has an artist’s soul. She’s definitely a creative, and a talented photographer and poet. Now that I write those words, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m reflecting my true thoughts to her.

A few years ago I read Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. I was struck by their desire to help others grow in creative confidence. To quote them, they wanted to “help individuals and organizations unleash their full potential— and build their own creative confidence.” (from the preface) I still remember reading that and thinking “SO DO I!!!!” (And yes, I do believe I actually yelled that! lol)

I no longer yell that — well, not very often — but it remains very true. Creating space for others to experience themselves for the creative we all are, is very important to me.

So when my friend shared with me, it was a “wow!” moment. I don’t think I acknowledged the wow-ness to her, instead I just stood in the moment and listened.  As I listened, she continued. In beautiful, humble gratitude, she told me I also helped her grow in her faith.

Again … wow! I always want — through my words, actions, and being — to encourage others in faith — faith in God, faith in possibilities, faith in themselves, faith in goodness, truth, and beauty.

The opportunity to make a positive difference in the life of another — for creativity and faith — is a gift. The doing it, and being told about it — again, a gift. I am so very grateful for my friend  our friendship, the ways we help each other grow, and for her willingness to tell me. It was a great gift to me. It was a moment to bask in gratitude and awe.

I don’t just have those opportunities with this friend. I’m blessed to be an educator and have those opportunities each time I go to work.  As educator I have the opportunity help each child who crosses my path believe in themselves as creatives, as thinkers, and as hopeful, faith-filled people. I also have the opportunity to grow in the same ways, due to my encounters with my students. And I have the opportunity to gift them with my thanks.


I was talking with a young friend who is beginning her student teaching this year. I asked if she was excited. She said, “Yes, but honestly a bit overwhelmed as well.”

Yes, a bit overwhelmed! I think all educators can echo that sentiment. I think — within reason — it’s much like nerves in an athlete. It isn’t a bad thing. It’s an indication that we understand what is before us. We understand that we are doing something quite important. What we do matters.

I figure every year, I”ll experience a bit of that astonished, and sometimes heavy, sense of wow. I hope, pray, and trust that I will never cease to remember that the overwhelm and struggle is real and important. Then, with many breaths I hope, pray, and trust that I will treasure each opportunity as a gift, and always look with awe at the beautiful souls entrusted to me.

Blessings, peace, and joy to my fellow educators! Every day is an incredible opportunity,  a remarkable gift, a profound responsibility.  Be grateful. Enjoy them. Bask in them. Share them. 



Quieting my mind with a good tangle

Wow I had a tough time turning off my brain … and to be honest, my spirit … last night. It seemed everything just wanted to stay wound up a bit too tight to allow for sleep.

Thankfully, as I went up to bed, I noticed my black art squares sitting with a pack of white, gold and silver gel pens. “Oh!!!” I thought, “That’s what I’ll do! A zentangle ©.”

I’ve zentangled – or did my version of a tangle – many times previously. I have always enjoyed it but never really experienced it as zen-like as some suggest it might be. But I have to say, for some reason, last night it was really a zen experience!

I picked up a sheet of paper I had previously discarded because I had been unhappy with my placement of the strings (zentangle boarders). I used the parts of the strings I liked, and casually reworked just a bit of the string placement. I decided to work using only white ink (because I didn’t use any white the last time I tangled). I worked with some designs I’ve used previously, and allowed myself to be inspired by others’ designs, in order to create new ones of my own.

Perhaps it was because I was so tired. (Did I mention it was 1AM?) Perhaps it was because I wasn’t really trying to create something – I was just playing, treating the page almost like a piece of scrap paper. Perhaps it was using the form but not feeling bound by the form. I’m not really sure. But whatever the reason, the process was particularly peaceful, free, and enjoyable.


I added the paraphrase of a Thich Nhat Hanh quote as both an affirmation of what I was doing, and as a reminder of what I always want to do…

Breathe, believe, and be. Smile, cultivate calm, and be cognizant and grateful for the present, wonderful moment.


With gratitude to the creators of Zentangle and the many people doing great inspiring work, here are a couple links: – The website of Zentangle Method creators Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas – The website of Sandy Steen Bartholomew.