Most books I read don't qualify as Before and After Books. I like to read, therefore I read a lot. I learn things from the all the books I read. Faberge eggs, the history of Afghanistan, the procedures of landing an aircraft, the competitiveness of the world of ballet - these are all things I've learned about from books. Have any of those things changed the way I live my life? Not really. They were interesting and added dimension to my life to be sure, and I've loved them for it. But some books have changed me. That puts them in their own category. On this recurring feature of my blog, I'd like to share books that fall into the category of Before and After Books for me.
The first book is one I read some time ago. It's the first one that sprang to mind when I thought up the idea of this feature. Yes, I did see it on Oprah. (You may roll your eyes here, if you like.) I like Oprah, but I want to be clear that I don't follow her every recommendation. In other words, I don't wait to see what her favorite things are each Christmas so I can make my shopping list. I've watched her show here and there (mostly in college, which is when you have the most time for afternoon television in your life) over the past twenty something years. I happened to catch when she had the author of Simple Abundance on her show one afternoon in my late twenties. I don't recall what it was that Sarah Ban Breathnach said that compelled me to read her book, but I do remember Oprah talking about how it had changed her life. I was at a particularly lonely time in my life. Things hadn't fallen into place for me like I had thought they would. I was in the figurative doldrums. So I figured if this book changed Oprah's life (which quite frankly seemed a little bit better than mine at the time), maybe it could do a little something for me as well.
This is my copy. Another hallmark of a Before and After Book is that you
keep it forever. Or in some cases, until it falls apart.
Reading the book was enjoyable, but no epiphanies struck me as I was doing so. I wouldn't have classified it as life-changing while I was reading it. I wasn't clutching it to my chest and thinking, "I've found it! The key to life!" It was more like, "I see your point there. That's reasonable, but I don't know about life-changing. I was promised life-changing. By Oprah!"
In a nutshell, Simple Abundance gives you a daily reading which always begins with a quote (I'm a sucker for nothing, if not a good quote.) and asks you to reflect on an aspect of daily life. I find it somewhat ironic that it seems that Ban Breathnach wrote it to encourage reflection for those with who were living a hectic life and didn't have time for reflection, because at the time I was reading it, I had nothing but time for reflection. I just didn't know the direction my reflection needed to take. My thoughts on how to change my life were scattered everywhere about everything everyday.
Looking back on it, I see how it shifted my way of thinking about things slowly. The main thing that I think changed me was what she had to say about the principle of gratitude. She encourages a person to keep a gratitude journal in which you write down five things you are grateful each day, the more specific, the better. The idea is not to write down the same five things each day (my children, my health, my job, etc.) if you can help it. Get down to the nitty gritty (the excellent cup of coffee, the feeling of accomplishment after a workout, the funny thing your child said at breakfast). I'll admit when I read this, my first instinct was to roll my eyes while whispering, "Whatever" under my breath. That's my go-to response for a lot of things. I'm not saying being a skeptical is bad, but sometimes it blocks me from a new way of seeing things. Luckily there was also a part of me that thought, "What have you got to lose? Try it." Ban Breathnach writes, "How many times in the past have we chosen not to change our lives for the better simply by not choosing?"
I started to do this but quickly began to feel foolish writing down the minitua of everyday life. I don't know why this was (and still is), since I like to write things down. Maybe it was too personal. It made me feel vulnerable. Even so, the idea wouldn't go away. It was there, nagging at me. I pray every night. I have since I was a small child. So instead of writing my top 5 list down, I started to thank God for those five specific, nitty gritty items/moments/events/people each night at the beginning of every prayer. Some nights, I really had to rack my brain. I was living far away from the family I had grown up with. I had no husband or children. Most of my friends were in their twenties and either lived far away or were beginning their own families. But I did have a dog. She entered into my top five list many nights- the softness of her ears, her distinctly puggy smell, her excitement when I would come home each day. I had a job I loved. Something one of my students said or did often made it into the top five. Sometimes good food or drink or a dinner with a friend and some meaningful conversation made it on the list. Many times songs that I loved and listened to that day or books I couldn't wait to get back to reading were listed specifically. Awareness was setting in.
Little by little, this shifted my thinking. This, in turn, shifted the quality of my life. How much it improved my life snuck up on me. When something good happened, I was bound to pay more attention to it. I savored those things. I might need it for my nightly top 5 list. Even things that didn't make it into the top 5 list were appreciated and realized more. I started to become more aware of things that made me happy. And I started to make choices that led me to doing those things. (Why yes, I do love sunflowers. Maybe I should plant some in my yard. Actually, I do love the color purple. Maybe I will buy these purple shoes even though it seems more practical to buy the black ones.)
I came to appreciate things and people more. Ban Breathnach writes in her book, "You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law; the more you have and are grateful for, the more you will be given." Truer words were never written. I once heard a priest say, "You simply cannot be more generous than God." Same thing. My life changed pretty dramatically about a year after I read the book and had been mentally ticking off my top 5 list each night. I started a new job. I bought my first house. I met my husband. I don't think any of that would have happened if I hadn't become consciously grateful for what I had in the here and now.
Fast forward to 15 years later. Life is hectic now. It is most assuredly not solitary. I still have a job. I also have a husband, two children, two dogs, and two cats. I'm on my third house. I've made new friends. I've adopted new interests and become more passionate about old ones. One thing has not changed. I mentally continue ticking off a top 5 list to God each night for what I am grateful for. It's not that it's always easy now that my life is fuller. Some nights I fall back on the old standbys (my family, their health, our home, our pets), while other nights my items are very specific, so much so that I find myself smiling in the dark sometimes. I can say with 100% confidence that this still enriches my life because it makes me more aware of what I have and what I need to continue to be happy. It's easier to set priorities if you know what makes your soul happy. As one of the early quotes in the book from Robert Louis Stevenson states, "To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to keep your soul alive."
Life has changed for me because of gratitude, but I'm still a sucker for a great quote.