In the epilogue to her forthcoming book, Wake Up Grateful (November 2020), Kristi Nelson examines the healing we can find even in the most difficult times, when we learn to approach each day taking nothing for granted.

When I completed cancer treatments in 1993, I could not write. Anything. At all. For a long time. Chemotherapy had caused peripheral neuropathy, which kept me from being able to type or hold a pen with ease; and I suffered the residual blur of “chemo brain.” But none of that is what actually kept me from writing. I could not write because I did not want to spend a single moment unavailable to my life as it was unfolding. I had been awakened to see each day as a blessing and my heart had been opened to the brevity of time. I did not want to squander any of my life with an absence of attention to my immediate experiences, loved ones, and the beauty around me. Even though many people encouraged me to pick up my old writing practice, or to document my survivor’s story for the benefit of others, I simply could not bring myself to sit and try to capture anything in words. Life itself wanted to keep me busy, calling me loudly at all hours to behold a canopy of stars, chase sunlight, tend to my body and heart, or revel in love in its many forms. For years, writing felt like it stole me from life, pulling me out of experiencing my moments in lieu of thinking and theorizing about them.

Now, when I wake up to each new day, I am surely grateful. And, to be honest, a sense of urgency and intensity is awakened in me as well. I wonder how to live with the fact that life is so beautiful and also finite. What do I do with the gift of the moment? How do I invest in even the near-future knowing that the future itself is unpromised? Aware that my life is precious, how do I make sense of spending countless hours each day sitting at a computer? It can be a bit of a conundrum for me, and reconciling my choices is often a wildly inelegant dance. But being fully awake to conundrums is the price of admission to a conscious life. And it is worth everything it takes for me to fumble my way through figuring it out — because this is my perfectly imperfect practice of grateful living.

From the beginning, writing this book felt more like a “soul assignment” than a decision. This was fortunate as I would have sidelined myself a million times for anything less than a burning mandate from the Universe. These words mark the endpoint of an effort that took more resolve than I imagined I was capable of mustering. Like a pilgrimage, the book took me on an arduous journey away from the pull of my day-to-day life and asked me to focus intently on a commitment to completion — no matter what. I can now attest to the fact that in the midst of it, something profound in me changed. Holding fast to gratefulness, my trust in life was tested and deepened. I came to reconcile the needs of this moment with those of a tomorrow worth investing and believing in. For someone who has lived acutely for a long time — dancing with life on the head of a pin, so to speak — this turned out to be more trying, and also more healing than I imagined.

In the midst of working on this book, my mother was unexpectedly given a terminal diagnosis and died. I spent much of the six months she was in Hospice digging my heels in, resisting the possibility that I could actually midwife the birth of a book and help to midwife the end of my mother’s life simultaneously. The reach and resonance of the “idea” of gratefulness came into question for me in new ways. Ultimately, it was this nexus of birth and death that humbled me; calling me to embrace, face squarely, and reconcile anything I would have to say about living gratefully with the full-blown reality of life. Whatever I was going to write would need to stand up to an active engagement with the great fullness of life, and an active connection to what matters most — in the midst of losing what matters most.

It was through offering myself fully to all of what life asked of me this last year — loss, grieving, writing, and surviving — that grateful living evolved from an “idea” to a true way of life. In the process of the book’s unfolding, what seemed true was tested and either became more true or was discarded. What I had always told people was nourishing about gratefulness ended up nourishing me to my core and carrying me through. As words poured and petered out of me, it was as though each one had to go through the fact-check and filter of an exhausted, broken heart. The process — and what survived the process — became my medicine.

As I sit writing these words today, the power of gratefulness is needed in our world more than I could have imagined only weeks ago. It is early 2020 — a time that will be forever known as the awakening of the coronavirus pandemic. Each day another city, state, or community in North America is turning to “shelter in place.” Together, we are trying to flatten the curve and contain the spread. We are confronted as a nation and a globe with unparalleled uncertainty. We are questioning and ceasing many aspects of our daily lives, enduring days of greater isolation, fear in the face of the unknown and suffering with what is known. Try as we might, we have absolutely no idea what will unfold from here, but we do know that we will be challenged. And we also know that we will be presented with abundant opportunities to reorient ourselves toward a way of life that is sustainable and recognizes our interdependence, that exhibits greater appreciation for the Earth and one another. And like any pilgrimage worth the journey, we will learn a lot about ourselves and about love — if we commit to taking nothing in our lives for granted, and continually say yes to the invitations for transformation we are extended.

Grateful living makes life your pilgrimage and all your moments a practice-ground. It offers a path rich with reminders that point you again and again toward the place where your heart can remember and come alive to what matters most. It invites you to return to this remembrance and heightened aliveness, no matter how far afield you — or the world — may feel. Each time you stop on the path for presence, look for perspective, and go towards possibility, you will recognize and appreciate the opportunities available to you, no matter your circumstances.

There are times when the path of life will turn a corner and deliver you the blessing of perspective. Whenever and however perspective arrives, know you are being offered a gift and say yes. This is what waking up is about, and it will change how you want to live. Time will feel more vivid, more precious, more transient. This awareness can be a welcome shift. Poignancy is likely to grab hold of you and re-order your priorities. Let it have its way with you. An experience of privilege will fill you up. Let yourself be moved. Peak awareness will offer you a sense of belonging. Let yourself connect. Your principles will want to direct you to what matters. Let yourself be guided. The lure of beauty and pleasure will call to you more loudly. Let yourself go.

Life is a gift. Everything is surprise. The ordinary is extraordinary. Appreciation is generative. Love is transformative. These truths are seeking you in every moment. Take nothing for granted. Wake up grateful. It is never too late. It is never too early. Say yes to your life.

Text excerpted from Wake Up Grateful © 2020 by Kristi Nelson. Watercolor wash © Nomoco. All rights reserved.

Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson is the executive director of A Network for Grateful Living. She has a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School… See Bio

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Wake Up Grateful

by Kristi Nelson and Brother David Steindl-Rast

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