Almost fifteen years ago, I participated in a 90-day self-development challenge, with about 20 other women, which invited us to take on behaviors and actions that would have us ‘be the expert’. Over the course of 90 days, were encouraged to declare an area in which we were hoping to develop deep competence, and then demonstrate that competence through various activities, such as published writing, talks on our chosen subjects, and successful ‘pitches’ for our work. Among the tasks we were asked to complete, were ten handwritten letters of gratitude to people who had inspired us. This was about 6 months after my mother died and I chose to write to one of her favorite poets, Nikki Giovanni. My mother introduced me to her writing at an early age, and I wanted to express my gratitude for the gift of her poetry, a thing we shared and loved together.
I was pleased that I’d even been able to find a mailing address for her at the university where she was teaching, but I was floored when I received a handwritten note back from her. In it, she wrote simply, “Dear Michelle, thank you for your lovely note and kind remembrance of your mom.” What was meant to be a simple expression of gratitude, turned into a phenomenal moment in my life. A writer I deeply admired responded to me. More specifically, she responded to my gratitude. That experience taught me that gratitude could move between two people, like an energetic force, even if they’d never met, creating a connection across time, space, and circumstance.
In her reflection piece, “New Rituals of Regard,” the late bell hooks* wrote about what it is like to care for a loved one who battles dementia or Alzheimer’s, in this case her mother. She describes their quiet moments sitting side-by-side, holding hands, and enjoying a slowed pace that her mother would likely not have tolerated in her more lucid years. She offers that in those moment she appreciates her mother and the world differently. She noted her boundless gratitude when witnessing her mother’s transition to a different kind of life, finding with her a different kind of love. “Gratitude…prepares the ground of our being for love,” she offers, “and it is good to see that in the end, when all is said and done—love prevails.” Gratitude cultivates us for love and makes us fertile ground for deeper human connection. In a pivotal way, bell hooks asserts that practicing gratitude creates the possibility for love in each of us, despite the challenges we face in any given moment.
My colleague Robin recently shared a quote from Voltaire. “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” This is to say that if we can see and appreciate something in another, we are connected to the person through our admiration, and perhaps move closer to similar greatness within ourselves. This makes many universes of talent, ability, and virtue equally available to us, if we commit to recognizing those things in others. Which takes me back to my letter to Nikki Giovanni.
There is no logical reason for me to believe that sending Nikki Giovanni a letter would ‘matter.’ There is even less logic to suggest that she would write me back, and yet she did. We cannot underestimate what sharing our gratitude in others awakens in them. That in our being moved, we move others. This is a kind of love, the love I think hooks references in her own reflection—one which despite difference, and distance, prevails.
*bell hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, wrote under the name of her maternal great-grandmother, and documented her name in lowercase, to emphasize her work more than herself.