Graduate-Level Gratitude

“Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for.” —Rick Warren

Thanksgiving Centerpiece
Thanksgiving centerpiece aboard Take Two

I have written several Thanksgiving posts for this blog over the years but this November I want to explore a whole new level of gratitude because I have noticed a seasonal shift in my life; we have entered a time of “goodbyes” as we send our kids out into the world, grieve the loss of one of our parents (Jay’s stepmom Mary last fall), and see the inevitable decline that aging brings. While I am grateful for all our travels and the memories we’ve made, I am also seeing the blessing in our return, in re-engaging in a community onshore, and in weathering the losses that this stage of life invariably brings with it.

I heard a sermon on gratitude many years ago that I have never forgotten (Randy Pope preaching at Perimeter Church in Atlanta). He talked about the three levels of gratitude: basic, when you are thankful for the obvious blessings in your life; next-level, when you find ways to be grateful in the middle of difficult circumstances (the “silver linings” to big, dark clouds); and graduate-level, when you are thankful for the hard things, not just despite them. This kind of thanksgiving is only possible if you let go of your preconceived notions of “good” and “bad” and trust God to decide what’s “best” in the long-term, then thank Him for it, even if it hurts in the moment. Think of the pleasant things in life that seem “good” at the time, but have negative consequences, and all the “bad” or difficult things that later have happy outcomes. My trust in an omniscient and omnipresent God, outside of time and above circumstance, allows me to let go of expectations, be grateful in the moment, and find hope in the middle of hardship.

An extreme example of this kind of gratitude can be found in Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, in which she documents her family’s experiences in the Netherlands during WWII. After the Nazis invaded her country, her family hid Jews in a secret room in their home and helped smuggle them to safety. After the family was caught, all the members were sent to concentration camps to suffer alongside the people they were trying to save (only Corrie survived). She and her sister Betsie were sent to several camps but ended up at Ravensbrück, where the living quarters were infested with fleas and lice. Her sister insisted that they thank God for their new residence, and though Corrie balked at the idea at first, she reluctantly prayed with her sister. They held illicit Bible studies and worship services using a smuggled Bible wherever they went, offering comfort and encouragement in dark and difficult places, and because their new barracks were pest-infested, the guards would not come in to stop them, allowing Corrie to see they were blessed because of the unpleasant circumstances.

Counting my own blessings, I am so grateful for our health, our family, and our relative comfort in a world full of conflict, pain, and suffering. I feel especially thankful that we were able to take the buddy-boat sailing trip in August, with Jay’s dad and Eli meeting us in the Dry Tortugas on Lovely Cruise; we made happy memories that are worth more than any “thing” I can think of.

Crew of Lovely Cruise
“Skipper,” Eli, and Bailey aboard Lovely Cruise

I feel grateful that we found a spot at a good marina, made new friends, and were able to be close to family for the last few months (not to mention making it through another hurricane season without incident.) I’m thankful we got to be present for Aaron’s graduation from Universal Technical Institute, my nephew Toby’s wedding, Sam’s driving test for his license, Eli’s first successful Jiu Jitsu competition, Sarah’s swearing-in at the Coast Guard, Jay’s dad’s 75th birthday party, and all the fun homeschool field trips in the Everglades with Rachel and her cousins (my brother’s family).

Aaron's Graduation 2
Aaron graduating with flying colors (Automotive Technology and Ford FACT program, heading to Mercedes Benz)

But there have been some hard things this year, too. While we were on our sailing trip in August, our close friends in the Keys, the Segards, lost their thirteen-year-old son Ben in a freediving accident. Our kids grew up with Ben and his sisters, and his loss has impacted everyone in our family and in our tight-knit homeschool community. Despite our hectic schedule (including sailing back from the Dry Tortugas, hauling out and painting the bottom of Take Two in Key Largo, relocating our family and vehicles, and moving Take Two to a new marina in southwest Florida) we were able to make it back to Marathon for Ben’s celebration of life. It was so good to be with all our friends at this tough time—a shared grief is more easily borne. There was so much love and gratitude for Ben’s life that I felt a deep joy alongside the sadness. The blessings of these friendships, for which I have always felt grateful, are even more evident when things get hard. We have a “home” in the Keys, even though we have a transient lifestyle, something I do not take for granted. 

Driftwood castle 2015
Homeschool friends in the Keys, 2015 (Ben Segard in the middle in red shirt/white cap)

And while I have always been a person who appreciates “silver linings,” this past year has taught me graduate-level gratitude as well. I never thought I would say that I was thankful for a hurricane, or a death, but this time last year, I was grateful for both. My son Eli was made homeless by Hurricane Ian just weeks before the passing of Mary at hospice after unsuccessful treatment for pancreatic cancer. This confluence of events led to my father-in-law asking Eli to come live with him for a few months while Eli’s rental was being repaired. Not only was my son shown love in a practical way, but his “Skipper” was not alone during the first few months after the loss of his wife. Of course, I didn’t want Mary to die—and I miss her terribly—but witnessing her dying at peace with her Maker, surrounded by loving family and friends, and without further suffering, made me thankful in a whole new way. I don’t always understand the “whys” of life’s absurdities, but I have definitely experienced the “who” in a difficult time. The twenty-third Psalm says that God is a good shepherd who walks with us whether we are in green pastures beside still waters or in the valley of the shadow of death, and I now have a tangible sense of that presence.

Mary's Roses
Life goes on: Mary’s roses are still blooming

The joy and gratitude I felt at that time has stayed with me ever since; every breath now seems like a miracle, and I have a new appreciation for life in all its highs and lows, which seem to run concurrently. We have just canceled our traditional Thanksgiving buddy-boat cruise to Cayo Costa State Park because Jay’s dad is now experiencing some serious health problems, but I know there is a Bigger Plan than mine. I feel thankful that he’s getting the care he needs, that Jay’s brother’s family will be here next week, and that we have a place for the family to gather for a holiday before Sarah leaves home in a few weeks. I feel grateful that a slip opened up at our marina so that we can keep the boat nearby a little longer, especially so we can spend time with our parents, all of whom have challenges at this stage of life. I’m still hoping we can go sailing this winter with Sam and Rachel, but I have learned that surrendering what I want allows me to receive unexpected gifts, that suffering puts everything into perspective, and that love’s light shines brighter in the dark. Whether you find yourself on a mountain, in a valley, or along the railroad tracks of life, the crew of Take Two wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Family at cousin's wedding
Family all together at cousin’s wedding