Kristi Nelson was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer when she was only 33 years old. For the past 27 years, she has walked through life with an ever-deepening practice of grateful living. In her new book Wake Up Grateful, Kristi offers inspiration, meditations, and practices for how to live gratefully in the world. Whether you’re curious about the book or have just turned the last page, we invite you to listen to Kristi read this excerpt. Enjoy!
Hi, I’m Kristi Nelson, author of Wake Up Grateful.
As the connective tissue between our moments and experiences, gratefulness allows us to find gratitude in the “great fullness” of life in all its real-world moments of messiness and magnificence. Gratitude is great. Gratefulness is greater. To speak about the differences between gratitude and gratefulness might seem like quibbling over semantics, but there are important distinctions. The common understanding of the word gratitude simply does not convey the magnitude of gratefulness and all that it offers us as a way of being in the world. Gratefulness does not reserve itself only for when good things happen or we get what we want. It is more than simply saying thank you when things go well or counting your blessings at the end of the day. Gratefulness revels in the deeper truths of “I woke up again today” or “I can still notice beauty after another hard day.” It enables us to have the tenacity to attend and respond in a more resilient way to our challenges. It is a perspective shift to: No matter what happens, I still know that every moment offers me something for which to feel thankful, and I make myself available to the exploration. Gratefulness opens us to the opportunity to experience gratitude in every moment.
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. 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 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 and the proximity of 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. In many ways it still does.
When I wake up to each new day now I’m surely grateful, and to be honest, urgency and intensity are awakened in me as well. I wonder how to act on the fact that life is so beautiful and also finite. What do I do with a 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 recurring 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. It is worth everything that 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 end point 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 journey turned out to be more trying and also more healing than I imagined.
While 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 first book and help to midwife the end of my mother’s life simultaneously. 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 a 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 very 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 medicinal 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 forever be known as the awakening of the COVID-19 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 reminded anew of what is actually essential. We are questioning and ceasing many aspects of our daily lives, and during 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. 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; one that exhibits greater appreciation for one another and all of Life. 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 to 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 toward possibility, you will recognize and appreciate the opportunities available to you, no matter your circumstances.
“Speaking of grateful living is another way of speaking about full aliveness and waking up to the joy of life.”
-Brother David Steindl-Rast.
The Five Guiding Principles:
Brother David’s teachings on gratefulness encompass Five Guiding Principles. These principles are a support structure for you to lean on whenever you find yourself approaching a moment or opportunity and want to do so wholeheartedly. They offer a comforting and catalyzing reference point for your thoughts and actions and a continual reminder of guiding truths.
You can connect with the Five Guiding Principles as a way of welcoming and acting from gratefulness in your daily life. Each one has a wealth of support to offer, and on its own is powerful enough to transform your life if you dive deeply into it’s invitation and offerings. Taken together, they are a robust practice in support of deeper well-being and greater joy, and they build on one another in a trustworthy progression. These are the five touchstones you can return to as wisdom in your daily life. Life is a gift. Everything is surprise. The ordinary is extraordinary. Appreciation is generative. And love is transformative.
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 that you’re 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 reorder 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, and 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.