Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
“It’ll only be two more years,” said the professor’s wife, smiling. She looked so confident, her dyed-blonde hair attractively styled, clothes and jewelry perfectly coordinated. As she encouraged us that we could do it, that seminary wasn’t all that long, I tried to smile back while a voice inside my head screamed, “Two more? Not for me!” Not even a month into the school year, I already struggled to find joy in my circumstances and the speaker’s intended encouragement felt more like a bag full of rocks.
I sat with a group of first year student wives; we listened, a little wide-eyed, on comfortable couches nestled close to the expansive fireplace. Every month, the seminary women met in the administration building, an old mansion, to socialize and listen to a professor’s wife or guest speaker give a short talk. When I walked through the mansion’s huge double doors into the wood-paneled foyer, I felt as if I should be greeted by a butler who would bow slightly and say, “Right this way, Madame.” Even with no butler, the opulent surroundings dazzled me a little in contrast to our run-down little house which boasted rusty well water, a miniature oven that burned everything, and living room windows so low that you had to sit down to see outside!
Many husbands of women in the room planned to be pastors and would indeed finish school in three years. Mine, however, looked ahead to a PhD and at least five additional years in school, which sounded to my new-bride ears like an eternity. Although I still had much to learn, that day I realized that I couldn’t just count the years, the days, until school was done and, “real life” could begin. If I did, then time, a precious gift from God, would slip past unnoticed while I pitied my hardships as a student wife. No, I realized. Life is now.
I am now six years into my journey as a student wife (with at least four to go) and I would like to offer encouragement to those of you on the same journey. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” My husband and I often refer to our grad school life as an adventure. We could endure this time as challenge, and we might survive. Or we could choose to enjoy it and really live.
So how do we live in the now instead of straining our eyes to glimpse the future, that elusive time when our partners have a “normal” job? I’ve found that it helps me to focus on the good things about this time in graduate school instead of the difficulties. And don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that it can be tough. I too stare at the budget and wish the stipend stretched just a little further and I can feel jealous of the Latin book which often replaces me as my husband’s evening companion. And yet, this time on our grad school journey has been a wonderful time of new places and experiences. We moved from a little Mid-Western town to the Pacific Northwest, back to the Mid-West, then to the Eastern coast. In each place, and during the long moves in between, I met many interesting people and stocked my memory full of beautiful places: orcas swimming in Puget Sound, deep shaded evergreen woods, long stretches of desert studded with strange and fantastic rock formations, fields upon fields of corn and beans, peaceful bay waters stretching past seeing. All these experiences I owe to grad school.
Not only is it important to find the particular benefits of being a grad student wife, but I have found that simple gratitude helps me live in the now. This past year, I read a book by Ann Voskamp entitled One Thousand Gifts. In it she encourages readers to notice and give thanks for God’s abundant blessings in our lives. As I tried to follow her advice, the sheer number of blessings overwhelmed me. I saw God’s love as I savored morning coffee steaming in my favorite pink mug, I found it in a fog-breaking rainbow across the harbor and when I basked in a quiet golden-pink sunrise. Simply noticing and thanking God for His blessings has been perhaps the most important way for me to remain content with my current season of life.
While gratitude is the key to enjoying our time during grad school, I have also found several practical tips which help me fully live in the present. First, keep your priorities and passions alive. My husband and I place a strong priority on remaining open to children, so now outstretched arms and excited cries of “Daddy!” barrage his ears as he steps in the door, a daily reminder of life beyond the papers and lectures. Our choice to start a family, perhaps more than any other, has helped us to recognize that our life is not on hold during school. Families and situations differ but what is most important to your family should dictate your life during grad school, not the other way around.
Supporting a partner through grad school is a worthy task, but don’t let the busyness drive you to abandon your own interests. It may sound implausible to fit your own interests into a schedule already overflowing with housekeeping, child-raising and perhaps a job or homeschooling. And yet, I have found that everyone in my house benefits from a happier mama. If I stop to read a good book, or play the piano, or sew something, it helps me remember the person that I am, one that I often forget amid crying children and piles of laundry. Being a graduate student’s wife requires sacrifice, but we don’t have to play the martyr by needlessly giving up what we care about.
One of the most important ways to live your life now is to keep a strong relationship with your partner. One practice that has been very important to my husband and me during graduate school is our weekly date night. I use the word “date” rather loosely since it almost never involves leaving our house. Our actual activities may not seem that exciting to anyone else: watching Star Trek re-runs or classic movies on Netflix, reading The Lord of the Rings or Flannery O’Connor’s short stories aloud, my husband attempting to teach me chess, or just sitting on the couch to talk. Perhaps the best part of date night for me is that my husband schedules time to be with me. No books, no papers, no planner, just us. As I’m sure all of you student wives know, school work is practically endless and it is important for you and your husband to set boundaries. My husband also schedules time with our children during the week. These set aside times help keep our focus in the right place. School, however important, is just school. People come first.
Mother Teresa once said “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” We wives have great power to set the tone for our families. It is in large part up to us whether this graduate school season is miserable or fabulous. So ladies, let’s make time with our partners a priority, let’s keep our passions alive, and let’s choose gratitude. Your life is now. Let us begin.
The other day I read a recent post from a friend of mine, Rachel, who has just moved to Malawi (and whose blog is always worth reading). Out of her experience in Malawi, she offers an illustration of want and plenty using a stubby pencil, the prized possession of one of their new friends, six-year-old Asan.
Christmas is a season for excesses, and of course there is something entirely right about that. But Rachel offers a timely reminder for this Monday’s food for thought to not forget that excess itself is culturally determined, that any abundance that comes to us must be held with the responsibility we owe to the ‘least’ in our societies, whether on a local or global scale – and that we are all impoverished when any one of us is, since that poverty often prevents people from making use of their full capacity in the service of the common good.
Asan, who is six, loves my son Aidan, who he summons daily by standing outside our house and shouting “Ten!”; “Aidan” has morphed in the Chichewa accent into “eh-TEN” and then attenuated, by Asan at least, into, simply “Ten.”
Asan likes to draw: the first time we met him, he clutched a small composition book, the kind American college students used to write their essay exams in (do they still do this?) and a pencil sharpened at both ends that was, tip to tip, perhaps one and a half or two inches at most.
These past two weeks, my facebook and twitter feed has practically blown up with everyone’s daily November thanks. Since Remembrance Sunday was also just commemorated in the UK, I’ve spent most of November thinking a lot about gratitude, and wondering what it would look like if the November thanks given every year was continued throughout the rest of the year. What would it look like in the winter doldrums, in the spring flowers, or the summer sunshine?
Gratitude is good for us. Yes, it is good for our souls, as it reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves; but did you know it can be good for our physical bodies as well? I recently stumbled across this article by Dr Robert Emmons, a world leading expert on the practice of gratitude and the effects it has on our physical health, psychological well-being, and relationships with others.
Dr Emmons says that gratitude is good for us in these four ways:
1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.
2. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions.
3. Grateful people are more stress resistant.
4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.
Do you do anything to cultivate gratitude in your own life throughout the whole year?
Something to think about this Monday morning!